COVID-19: Kiwis in India devastated by unprecedented travel suspension

Auckland International Airport arrivals sign.
Never before have New Zealand citizens and residents overseas been stopped from coming home. Photo credit: Getty Images

By Katie Scotcher for RNZ

New Zealanders in India are devastated the government has taken the unprecedented step of suspending all travel from the COVID-19 hot spot leaving them stranded.

From Sunday, no one can arrive here from India for 14 days - giving officials a chance to investigate ways to reduce the risk from a country where the coronavirus is rampant.

India is experiencing a major surge in COVID-19 cases, with nearly 100,000 new infections reported every day.

That's reflected in the cases picked up in managed isolation here, with 80 percent in the past two weeks from the subcontinent. Seventeen of the 23 COVID-19 cases reported in managed isolation yesterday arrived from India.

Desperate times, desperate measures

Never before have New Zealand citizens and residents overseas been stopped from coming home.

The prime minister wants to know if and how those numbers of infectious cases from India can drop.

"It may be that there are simply no other practical ways to reduce the risk but we want to exhaust every option because it not only keeps those who are travelling safer, but of course, reducing the risk in our managed isolation facilities."

National's Chris Bishop said while the ban was regrettable, it's the right move.

"Extraordinary circumstances justify extraordinary measures. It's not something we would want to have happen in the long-term obviously, but for a short period of time a temporary suspension, I think just in light of the large number of cases coming from India, it's the right thing to do".

But for Manish, the temporary travel ban feels like a punishment.

"You play by the book, you play by the rules, you do everything right... and suddenly, something is thrown at you and you're left to fend for yourself."

He travelled to Delhi in February to care for his sick father, leaving his wife and young daughter in Auckland.

Manish was due to board his flight home on Monday morning.

"We don't have any family support back in New Zealand so my partner was hoping that I'm back and I can support her as well back to our normal days, back to our normal family life."

Manish wasn't certain when his normal family life would resume.

"It says on the 28th of April, but we are not sure... what the government is going to do next."

The temporary travel ban - at this stage - will be in place for 14 days, but the government hasn't ruled out extending it.

Human Rights lawyer Michael Bott said the government's ban doesn't breach the Bill of Rights Act as long as it's only temporary.

"This may be an example of where in a time of emergency, we must basically have limits to the general rule of acceptance of all people back into New Zealand's borders and this situation here, the risk of outbreak is great."

Accusation of discrimination

While this ban only affects India, the government is also keeping an eye on other countries with high COVID-19 case rates - like the United States and Brazil.

That's something that's exercising an angry Mandeep Bela from the Indian Workers Association.

"Why only people from India?

"On the face of it, it does look really discriminatory and I don't think this is the right thing to do.

"If you look at active cases per capita, India is behind as compared to other countries, and even if you look at total amount of cases, US has more cases there compared to India so this decision does not make sense."

The government has always been keen to point out that the virus doesn't discriminate - but Mandeep Bela said it now appeared ministers were doing just that.