Covid-19 Omicron outbreak: Damien Venuto – How long will the stench of MIQ hang over NZ?

OPINION:

A US-based friend sent me an email this week, containing a link to an article about New Zealand.

Usually, such emails would involve something as endearingly typical of life in New Zealand as a man taking his horse through a McDonald’s drive-through, or a clown attending a redundancy meeting at an ad agency.

This time the link went to a story about a pregnant journalist who had been denied entry to New Zealand by the unforgiving MIQ system and forced to return to Afghanistan where she had been working.

The story of Charlotte Bellis has been like throwing a cigarette butt out of a moving car in the middle of summer, with the coverage spreading rapidly.

For right-leaning international media such as the Daily Mail and the Telegraph, this story was seen as the bloody fingerprint proving that New Zealand had lost the plot and was no longer a free and open society.

The left-leaning Guardian also saw merit in the story, but stressed the success of New Zealand’s Covid response in keeping deaths down and questioned the notion of suggesting the Taliban regime was anything but brutal to women.

Vice magazine writer Sophia Smith Galer went even harder on the Afghan angle, reporting the views of women’s rights activists who argued that some of the coverage of the story bordered on irresponsible and disrespectful to Afghani women suffering at the hands of the Taliban.

The issue remains deeply divisive, with readers separated along political lines continuing to thrash it out on social media platforms.

The one thing that’s clear is that none of this has put New Zealand in a good light.

This isn’t unique to Bellis’ case. Since the start of MIQ, stories have streamed in about desperate loved ones hoping to see their families. And the debate has always been divided between those who believe the ends justified the means and those who think the system was just too cruel.

The announcement today that the MIQ system will be dissolved means there can be no new versions of these stories, with the potential to spark yet another viral discussion about New Zealand’s reputation.

The question now is how long the stench of MIQ will linger in the consciousness of Kiwis and the international community whose attention was pulled our way.

Deborah Pead, a public relations expert with a long career in reputation management, says MIQ has long been an uncomfortable burden for liberal New Zealand to carry.

“There’s no doubt that this matter and the growing unhappiness with the MIQ lottery and thousands of triple-vaccinated Kiwis being denied their rights to come back to NZ is mud for NZ’s reputation in general and Labour in particular right now,” she says.

“It feels cruel.”

While the media coverage over the past week has turned the border into a central talking point in New Zealand, Pead says it’s questionable how much of an impact the MIQ scandal will have in the context of New Zealand’s wider Covid response.

“Some of the mud from this scandal will stick,” she says.

“In the short term, the matter will be referenced for a while and will be an embarrassment for Labour, just like the DJ, but in time the matter will fade.

“It will be a short-term embarrassment, with no lasting impact. A bit like a recovered bankrupt, the scandal gets mentioned at first and then disappears when a new track record replaces the old.

“The rapacious news cycle will quickly move on to the next scandal and no doubt a major women’s magazine has already booked and paid for the photoshoot of mum and baby.”

Pead says that as the new border rules come into effect, the nation’s attention will shift to families being reunited again.

As the Covid dust settles in the coming months and years, Pead believes that MIQ will ultimately become one aspect within the broader context of the New Zealand Covid response. Rather than standing alone as a single narrative, making international front pages, it will be discussed as part of the strategy – not always a good one – of the Covid response in one small island nation that managed to keep Covid deaths below 60 for two years.

“Time will show these instances as being Covid collateral damage and they will be lumped together with all the cancelled events, collapsed businesses, mental health breakdowns and all the tragic, tragic stories we hear on a daily basis,” she says.

Every strategic move made during the Covid response had a ricochet effect.

Lockdowns flattened the curve, but crippled businesses and confined people to their homes. The wage subsidy saved businesses but became a huge national expense. And MIQ stopped the virus from coming in but broke countless Kiwi hearts.

It’s unclear at this stage what light history will cast on New Zealand’s response to Covid-19. It’s always difficult to make an accurate judgment call in the heat of the moment when headlines are feeding the fury. There’s no doubt that mistakes have been made, big and small, both local and abroad.

History is always messy when it’s being covered in news moments and rarely reveals itself fully until much later.

So will New Zealand carry the stench of MIQ into the future?

Perhaps, but expect it to be mixed with a few sweeter aromas too.

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