International arrivals at Auckland Airport, June 2020 (Photo: Radio NZ, Liu Chen)

Golriz Ghahraman: Why NZ’s south Asian communities are so nervous about the halt on arrivals from India

Division and social discord has undermined Covid-19 responses in other western nations. We must do everything we can to prevent that taking seed here, writes Green Party MP Golriz Ghahraman. 

The Ministry of Health has done a stellar job in keeping us all safe. I have no doubt that the latest measure to ban flights from India was taken with the best of intentions. It was, however, a measure which will prevent New Zealanders in an entire country from coming home to keep safe from the pandemic. Such a move hasn’t been taken since the introduction of the MIQ system, and it bears scrutiny. Many in our south Asian communities, including myself, have questions about the way this response is coloured – for lack of a better word – by existing prejudices in our systems.

Aotearoa has excelled in our Covid-19 response because we faced the pandemic with a science-based response and we prioritised the well-being and lives of our people. We worked together on the basis that in order to face this common crisis we have to take care of everyone. That is what a public health response should always look like. In fact, in priding ourselves on being a nation with a public healthcare system, we recognise that everyone here deserves to be cared for in the face of illness.

In saying that, we know that our systems are not free from prejudice and that this prejudice is often based on race. We know (or at least we would if we made even the most cursory of inquiries) that health policy and the delivery of public services generally aren’t always fair or equal – not all communities have their needs considered or access healthcare fairly here in Aotearoa.

To address that prejudice we must first accept that racism isn’t as simple as a bunch of people getting together to deliberately degrade or persecute a group because they, for example, hate Indians. Systemic racism is far more insidious and absolutely widespread. It’s why the New Zealand Police and SIS didn’t (and still don’t) list far-right terror groups on our official lists of terrorist organisations. It’s why Māori are far more likely to be spoken to by police and charged, convicted, and imprisoned for actions of the same nature than non-Māori, even though Māori are the group most likely to be the victims of crime.  There’s no doubt individual racism at each point of contact in cases like these sometimes exist, but I don’t think we’ll fix the problem or understand it if we write off every SIS worker, police officer, prosecutor and judge, let alone those who front policies trying to actively progress a white supremacist agenda.

What’s more helpful is to acknowledge that our systems have blind spots, sympathies and prejudices that lead to certain groups being more likely to be treated poorly and less likely to have their needs met. We as a society are more likely to tolerate breaches of fundamental rights when it comes to these same groups. That is what systemic marginalisation looks like.

Yesterday we had the still scary experience of hearing that a border facility worker has tested positive out in the community. They were one of the 20% or so frontline MIQ workers who are yet to be vaccinated. This, plus the rise in the number of positive cases arriving from India, has been cited by the government as the reason for temporarily stopping anyone arriving from India for at least the next three weeks. This includes citizens, who have a fundamental right to come home, and now won’t be able to access New Zealand’s public health system.

There’s no doubt that the policy advice given was in response to a serious threat within a complex context. But we’ve had examples of similar daily rates MIQ cases in the past with no suggestion that New Zealanders stuck in other overseas countries would be prevented from returning home. Instead, measures and systems within the facility were strengthened and we had a new line of defence which was that all border workers had to be vaccinated. Our MIQ facilities are designed to catch Covid-19, and cases being reported is a sign the system actually working.

It makes sense to me that many in our south Asian communities were confused and distressed immediately after the India ban was announced, and I think their questions around systemic prejudice are valid and important. The Bill of Rights Act gives all nationals the right to return, and as with all human rights, our willingness to adhere must apply even when times are tough otherwise those rights are meaningless. Of course, they can be curtailed in times of crisis if the response is reasonable and necessary. But the ban on arrivals from India raises questions about MIQ and why it was suddenly deemed inadequate as a line of defence. Did we consider that vaccination rates of frontline workers could be done more urgently, given the case that triggered this ban involved an unvaccinated worker? Did decision-makers assume a ban on India was a proportionate response without exploring and resourcing every other possible option, where we would not have felt so comfortable banning travel from the UK or US? What was the difference here?

Last week in Auckland, a rally was held to #StopAsianHate. The east Asian community experience of becoming scapegoats for Covid-19 was rightly raised. We know that hate crimes and abuse against east Asian New Zealanders have been on the rise since the Covid-19 crisis hit, and this latest decision has the potential to impact our south Asian communities in a similar way. They’re right to feel nervous.

So, as we walk freely into cafes and enjoy that last early autumn beach day this weekend with pride in our leaders and experts who’ve kept us safe here Aotearoa, we must remember that division and social discord is what’s undermined similar success in other western nations. It will be a firm and united belief in our Covid-19 response that will lead us to a broad and successful vaccine drive this year. That is why it is so important to keep insisting that our systems serve us all, and maintain the trust of all our communities equally. The only way to come out of this crisis and, hopefully, build back better is to keep insisting on equality.




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