PoliticsMay 11, 2020

How to start a new job, in a new country, in the middle of a pandemic


When we appointed Justin Giovannetti as our first press gallery journalist, it meant an adventure from Canada to New Zealand. When Covid-19 ripped around the world, the trip took on an altogether different dimension. Justin picks up the story from his temporary home in mandatory isolation in Auckland.

The world as I knew it came to a screeching halt at 3.23 pm on March 15. Up until that moment the coronavirus seemed like an irritant largely confined to the Chinese city of Wuhan. Dark clouds were on the horizon, but they weren’t here yet and might never get here. Then my phone dinged.

“Sorry to interrupt your lovely morning, but I think we need to move on rebooking flights. Air NZ is suspending service from March 31.” My fiancée Mirjam, who had just woken up in New Zealand, saw the news and dashed off a message before figuring out what time it was on the east coast of North America. “Including the Vancouver to Auckland route,” she added a moment later.

The messages set off a seven-week odyssey through a world deeply altered by Covid-19 that upended my life. Along with millions of others I became part of a small wave of migration, largely made up of families torn apart by rapidly closing borders.

The question facing these people would eventually be deciding where home is. It took me some time to realise that was the choice I was making. It took me longer to understand that a decision taken in the minutes after that message might end up lasting years.

On March 15 I was in the Canadian city of Montreal, on leave from my job as a correspondent covering western Canada for the country’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail. I was collecting research for a book on poutine. The elevator pitch is that I grew up in the part of Canada where the gooey dish came to life and my French Canadian dad has an unlikely connection to poutine’s birth story.

A woman on the Toronto subway, April 1 2020 (Photo: Cole Burston/Getty Images)

Few knew at the time that I’d accepted a job with The Spinoff. My Kiwi partner had been in New Zealand since early January, where she’d started a new job as a magazine editor. My plan was to finish book leave and then get back to work covering Canada’s politics. After a month, I would gracefully bow out and haul our possessions from Calgary to Wellington. Then my phone dinged.

Within an hour we’d both put in calls to Air New Zealand, I spoke with a former airline executive to get travel advice – leave now if you can – and we’d asked our movers in Calgary if they could help us pack within a few days. There was also the added problem that I was in Montreal, nearly 4,000 kilometres from our apartment on the Canadian Prairies. And my flight back wasn’t for a week.

One thing was certain, I would be moving to New Zealand. The decision seemed easy at the time. While I’d only spent about two months in the country over several trips, I’ve taken to New Zealand with the fervour of a religious convert in the years since I met Mirjam. I became the one in the couple who wanted to get out of bed before dawn to watch the All Blacks and eventually replaced the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s tedious radio news with More FM’s morning show out of Wellington.

When Mirjam’s message arrived I had been visiting friends. After all my calls, they felt we should go for a walk to the local pub to help calm our nerves. When we got there the door was locked but the staff were inside. It seemed odd but we figured they were cleaning up. We later learned the local government had ordered all bars and restaurants closed. They’ve yet to reopen.

This would be the start of weeks of me always staying a step behind Covid-19.

By the next morning Canada was slowly going into lockdown. Unlike New Zealand’s easy-to-follow national alert levels, Canada never adopted a single system of restrictions. Along with a series of “strong recommendations” from prime minister Justin Trudeau’s daily press briefings, the country’s 10 provincial leaders and a number of big city mayors introduced a patchwork of new rules almost daily.

The question of whether you can go outside and what’s open still varies significantly whether you’re in Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver. Unlike in the United States, which has seen a deep partisan divide on lockdowns between Republican- and Democrat-controlled states, Canada’s differences have been far less politically driven.

The country’s rules have instead reflected the severity of local outbreaks, as well as regional political cultures. The political views of Canadians differ in subtle but important ways across the massive country. 

A Covid-19 testing centre in Ottawa, Canada. (Photo: DAVE CHAN/AFP via Getty Images)

French-speaking Quebec has been hardest hit by the coronavirus, with outbreaks in nursing homes adding to the province’s over 35,000 cases and 2,600 deaths as of Thursday. Community transmission is rife and Montreal’s healthcare system is near the breaking point. The province has also adopted the country’s most stringent lockdown rules, something made easier by a political culture that prizes collective action and the common good above all else.

Fewer cases and a history of championing individual rights and smaller governments has translated into far looser rules across Western Canada.

The next day, Monday March 16, it became clear in New Zealand that a recession was all but inevitable. PM Jacinda Ardern announced that all gatherings of more than 500 should be cancelled. The government’s recently announced 14-day self-isolation rules for people entering the country would also be strictly enforced, she said. That wouldn’t be a problem for me, our application to rent a house outside Wellington was approved that morning.

Back in Canada, I had to get moving. First, I had to quit my job long before I’d planned to do so. After nearly seven years with the newspaper I had to explain to the national editor that I was leaving and asked her to waive the customary two-week notice period.

My landlord had to know I was leaving within days. The insurance company. The cable company. It was a solid two days of working the phones at a time when companies were waking up to Covid-19 and slowly sending staff home. It was a telling experience. The woman who took my call at the cable company explained that she was in her 60s and had lung disease. “We’re crammed in here like sardines, if anyone gets it I might die,” she said, the worry clear in a voice which betrayed a lifetime of smoking. There was little I could do but worry and wish her the best.

I also had to call Air New Zealand during one of the toughest times in the airline’s history and ask to rebook a flight to the following Wednesday. After a 40-minute wait on the phone I got through. The woman who answered my call explained that nearly everyone in the company had dropped their tools and gone to work as customer service. She was from marketing and couldn’t rebook the flight, but took down my information and said she’d pass it on. Within hours I got a new flight from the airline.

The response from Air New Zealand was moving and showed a resourceful side to the Kiwi spirit. Closer to me, Air Canada’s website and phone lines had melted down. Neither worked for days. The airline eventually offered to move up my flight to Calgary by two days if I paid $600, triple the cost of the original ticket. I declined.

On March 19 I awoke to another message from my partner. “When you wake up you’ll see that NZ closed its borders. Don’t panic. You’re a partner of a permanent resident and are allowed in still. I’m calling immigration first thing in the morning to confirm.” I did panic.

I fell into a rhythm over the following days of watching the Immigration New Zealand website as the rules changed. Would Mirjam need to fly to Canada and we would fly back together? What about new self-isolation rules? Could we fly through the US, where the virus was exploding?

An empty Toronto Pearson International Airport, April 1 2020. (Photo: Cole Burston/Getty Images)

I ended up staying at a friend’s house in Montreal for a week as travel restrictions sprung up and stores closed. I spent all day working on new travel problems as outside, the city and country slowly shut down. My book was put on hold. “You wake up every morning with a plan and then by the evening it’s completely fallen apart,” my friend told me. “You spend all day trying to fix it. You’re going to kill yourself doing this.”

On Saturday, less than a week after the first message, I was on a plane to Calgary. The city I landed in was different from the one I’d left three weeks earlier. Calgary is best known for three things: It was the site of the 1988 Winter Olympics, the heart of Canada’s conservative politics and the capital of the country’s oil industry.

Calgary has been suffering since 2015. I’ve spent years chronicling the city’s struggle and that of the province of Alberta. The oil-rich region, which is similar in size and population to New Zealand, had yet to recover from a collapse in oil prices midway through the last decade before the coronavirus hit. Covid-19 made everything worse. 

Days after I arrived, Alberta’s premier warned that unemployment from Covid-19 is expected to hit 25% and the economic contraction will resemble the Great Depression. The price of gasoline at local service stations reflected a global crash in oil prices. By early April a litre of gasoline was selling for 58 cents (approx 68 cents in New Zealand), nearly half the price a month earlier.

My own situation was going from bad to worse. The price our movers had quoted us nearly tripled, so a quick getaway was now out of the question. But hope remained and we asked immigration for an exemption to allow me to fly soon, before the international situation worsened. I scrambled to make plans as time ticked down on one of the last Air New Zealand flights out of Canada. We got no reply for days.

Only after the flight left without me did the New Zealand government respond: you don’t meet the criteria. Request denied. All the easier routes to New Zealand just got slammed shut.

The next month would see me making more plans, only to have them cancelled. I put our furniture for sale online and sold most within days of posting it. I found myself sleeping on an air mattress on the floor of our apartment, after selling both the bed frame and the mattress. I sold our duvets and downgraded to the sleeping bag.

Outside, Calgary became an epicentre for Covid-19 infections in Western Canada. The province’s lockdown rules were far softer than New Zealand’s level three restrictions and social distancing was largely aspirational. Construction sites remained open, as did cafes and restaurants that sold takeout. But a sense of fear became clear on the streets.

A single meatpacking plant became responsible for 20% of the province’s cases as hundreds became infected. Outbreaks eventually closed two plants in Alberta, which collectively provided most of Canada’s meat supply.

During the weekend before New Zealand moved down from level four, about 500 more people tested positive for Covid-19 in Alberta. Following the weekend, the province’s premier announced that he was working on plans to reopen the economy. While infections were still increasing and there was no evidence of the curve flattening, the province’s intensive care units could deal with hundreds more cases and many more deaths every day, he reasoned.

Some in the province responded with small protests, where crowds flouting social distancing rules held aloft signs demanding an immediate end to restrictions and questioning where Covid-19 came from.

As we waited for New Zealand’s border to open a little, the borders around Canada began closing. Travel to the United States was curtailed in one of the most significant closures since the two countries were at war in 1812.

US Customs officers stand beside a sign saying that the US border is closed at the US/Canada border in Lansdowne, Ontario, on March 22, 2020. (Photo: LARS HAGBERG/AFP via Getty Images)

By April 22 I thought I had a way into New Zealand. As a journalist for The Spinoff, I was an essential worker. I applied for another exemption and waited. Because of level four restrictions, we hadn’t been able to enter our house outside Wellington yet and Mirjam had to warn our landlord that we only had one income until I could travel.

I had Air New Zealand put a hold on one of the final Air Canada flights out of the country, a trip through Vancouver and Los Angeles. Air Canada announced the previous day that it was ceasing all flights to the US by the end of the week.

Immigration promised a response to my request within 48 hours. I began getting anxious about every notification I heard from my phone and dreaming about getting approval to travel. No response came in time. The flight took off and I wasn’t on it.

While I waited, my lease ran out and I had to leave our apartment. As night fell, I walked some boxes over to a friend’s empty apartment nearby. There was little left for me in Canada. The streets outside were deserted and all I had were a few bags. I was largely unemployed, although The Spinoff had offered to let me start writing from afar, and homeless. My parents wanted me to come home. 

I made contingency plans to drive thousands of kilometres to my mother’s house, in the heart of Canada’s coronavirus outbreak in Quebec. As I booked a rental car, the province of Manitoba, which sits in the middle of the country, announced mandatory self-isolation for anyone entering its borders. The rules seemed to imply the first real internal borders in Canada’s modern history – the country’s constitution strongly protects the right to movement. After repeated calls I spoke with one of the heads of the province’s coronavirus taskforce who conceded that the rules were poorly written and my travel across the country would be unimpeded as long as I didn’t stop in Manitoba.

A week after my request to Immigration NZ, on April 28, the long-awaited email came. It wasn’t what I had expected. I was bewildered as I read the email. I had been “approved to apply”. Reading on, I saw that my request to travel as an essential worker had been rejected. Instead, a civil servant had looked into my previous request and my work visa on record and had approved a humanitarian visa based on my relationship with Mirjam. For all the criticism Immigration New Zealand has faced in recent weeks, I have to salute the civil servant who took the leap to investigate and fix my problem. Without that person, I’d still be sleeping on a floor in Calgary.

I had to file documents with immigration, to prove my story. My fiancée, my job and my home were now in New Zealand. The proof they requested turned into an 81-page package. A day later, my request was approved. If I learned anything over the past month, it was that I had to travel fast.

Now I had to find a way to get to New Zealand in a world with few flights. The only link left between North America and New Zealand is a flight from LAX to Auckland. I had to call US Customs and Border Protection in Washington DC and clear my travel to Los Angeles. They gave me the green light, but warned that several states had travel bans in place that would impact me. My only two options to get to California were through Texas or Washington State. I had to read through orders from governors, state-wide health edicts and local county ordinances. I’m a political reporter and reading government documents is second nature to me. This was far from easy. Texas seemed risky, with a ban on certain travellers.

I booked a flight with Air New Zealand and a separate ticket with Delta Airlines from Vancouver to Seattle and then on to Los Angeles. I had two days before the flight. Most domestic air travel in Canada had shut down, so I rented a car to drive from Calgary to Vancouver. It’s a 1,000-kilometre drive through the Rocky Mountains. One of the world’s most picturesque drives, it winds by glaciers and national parks full of bears and other wildlife.

I left the next morning and drove for 12 hours straight on roads that were largely deserted, with roadside signs warning me against non-essential travel and asking me to stay home. That’s when it occurred to me that home was now an island nation on the other side of the world.

Finally en route!

Like all of the plans I had made over the past month, I was worried that this one too would break down at the last moment. Flights could be cancelled or borders could close further. I woke up at 4am and headed to Vancouver airport. It wasn’t until the wheels of flight NZ1 left the ground from LAX 18 hours later that I could finally breathe a sigh of relief.

Even as I flew towards Auckland, it became clear how lucky I had been. The crew of NZ1 received word that this flight, with only about 50 seats occupied, would be their last. The flight attendants stayed upbeat despite knowing they were headed towards unemployment.

I’ve now been in managed isolation in Auckland’s Pullman hotel for several days. I’ve yet to really set foot in New Zealand and I haven’t left the hotel’s grounds. As I prepare to enter parliament as The Spinoff’s press gallery reporter, I’ve found the sweeping view of the city from my hotel room to be a powerful reminder of something extraordinary. Below me is a city where daily life has been disrupted by Covid, but there’s little community transmission of the virus. People are not in masks, fearful of every surface and strangers. There has been profound difficulty and sacrifice in recent weeks, but not chaos and the wholesale sacrifice of lives.

Back in Canada the headlines still warn of mounting deaths. Thousands of health workers have been infected with Covid and hundreds have died. My family is facing months of continued isolation and warnings that they may not be able to see their friends this summer.

As my plane landed in Auckland in early May, the head flight attendant welcomed us home and spoke to her crew. “This has been a difficult time for us, but you’ve kept up your cheer and smiles. It might be years before some of us fly together again. Some of us might never fly again. Remember, onwards and upwards.” She was speaking to her crew, but really she was speaking to all of us.

Keep going!