Coronavirus: People returning from China to NZ struggle to self-quarantine

People arriving at Auckland Airport in late January.
People arriving at Auckland Airport in late January. Photo credit: RNZ/Liu Chen

By Liu Chen for RNZ

People returning from mainland China are calling for more guidance and help from the government as they struggle to find places to self-isolate.

The Covid-19 outbreak has now claimed 1775 lives, and the confirmed cases have surged to 71,335 worldwide, with a majority of them in mainland China.

The government has asked those who have travelled from and through mainland China since 2 February to stay in quarantine for two weeks, but some people say they have nowhere to go.

Director of Public Health Dr Caroline McElnay said up to midnight Sunday, there have been 4,386 people who have registered as being in self-isolation.

Auckland woman Connie, who didn't want her surname used, was busy looking for a place to stay for her adult nephew, who's returning from Guangdong in south China on Friday.

For the past 10 years, he's been living with Connie and her family of four. However, things are a bit tricky this time.

"We don't have a place for him to stay in quarantine. The whole family lives in the same house. There isn't any additional space. We will have to live in the same space, using the same toilet and bathroom all the time. How can we stay away from each other?"

"If the government or the Healthline can give them a place - make somewhere available for them to spend these 14 days quietly, that would be good. Then it wouldn't cause any trouble to others and they have somewhere to stay. We can take care of sending food."

Connie said she was told government emergency housing could be arranged for her nephew only after he was finished quarantine.

Jianwu Zhang slept in his car for two nights after coming back to Auckland from Shanghai last week.

He chose to stay away from his flatmates, and spent two hours in the airport calling around for alternative accommodation.

"I was wanting to book a hotel. A friend was helping to make calls as well. I was also making my own calls, but we called four or five motels in Auckland, they all said I can't stay there."

He finally found a place in north Auckland with short-term accommodation. Zhang said there were things the government can improve on.

"For people like me, who need to quarantine themselves, the government doesn't have clear guidelines. We don't know how to self-isolate - without somewhere to stay. We don't know whom should we contact. We don't know what to do."

Auckland woman Julia Miao was among a group of volunteers who have been helping people like Zhang to look for a place to stay.

She said they were searching accommodation websites, putting the message out on social media - as well as contacting schools and government agencies. But it had been hard work.

"Most of them [accommodation providers] have said 'no', and very few said 'let me think about it'. Generally they will take a few days to think. I've tried very hard to follow up. But our people can't wait. We also got lots of calls from overseas asking for help - these people can wait a few more days," Miao said.

Tauranga man Andy Liu, who was part of the group, said they had received 150 calls for help since late last month and calls kept coming in.

The group has helped some people already, but there weren't enough volunteers to answer all the pleas for help and it could be difficult to find suitable accommodation.

"I don't know what the government's plans are, but we hope every department can co-operate with each other to overcome the difficulties ... the government is the main power in this," he said.

Government response

The Ministry of Social Development's group manager of client service delivery, Kay Read, said the ministry had made "a small number" of hardship grant payments related to the virus and that number was expected to increase.

"We encourage people to get in touch with us to discuss their individual situation and what help is available. We will be offering all available support to assist people through this period of uncertainty," she said.

The Ministry of Health said anyone who needed assistance should contact Healthline's dedicated COVID-19 phone number 0800 358 5453, and some financial assistance was available to individuals and families.

"Healthline are working to understand people's individual welfare needs, and will be regularly checking on the welfare and wellbeing of those persons registered," it said in a statement.

"The ministry is continuing to work with other agencies to explore how we can further support people who are self-isolating. For example, there is already a range of support available to New Zealanders who are faced with financial hardship."

According to New Zealand Customs Service, 7459 people have arrived from mainland China since 3 February.

Quarantine poses challenges for school

Macleans College in Auckland has hundreds of foreign students and asked 260 of them to self-isolate because they had recently arrived from China.

Principal Steven Hargreaves said it wasn't easy to persuade teenagers to observe a quarantine period.

"We had students who saw that as an opportunity to take time off school and were away when they didn't need to be.

"The bigger issue was students who didn't want to miss school, very conscientious, and then arrived at school without observing that two-week isolation."

Those students were told to go home, though the school has no legal standing to enforce that, and none refused, Hargreaves said.

But some students were still coming into contact with other members of the public.

Hargreaves said it would help schools if they were told exactly what isolation should involve - whether it's simply staying away from school or being in lockdown at home.