Auckland: New Zealand had long been a dream destination for our vacation. Little did I know that this trip will cause so much panic and distress.
I, along with my partner, have been stranded in this country for nearly two months now, staring at an uncertain future, given that India, my native land, has sealed its borders for all of us. What was supposed to be a vacation has now turned into a nightmare with us in self-quarantine mode for more than a month now.
When the four of us – my partner, our friends Pradeep and Nikita Loiwal and I – had left India on March 8, there was no advisory by any government against travel to New Zealand. Nor were there any issues at the immigration in Auckland when we reached here.
The news of closing borders of India caught us by surprise.
We went to the Indian High Commission in Wellington on March 23, soon after India closed its borders. We requested them to facilitate our return to India. We also wrote emails to the Ministry of External Affairs and the COVID-control centres. It is unfortunate that amongst the foreign regions that figure in the government of India website, along with the names of points of contact and phone numbers, Australia and New Zealand are not even mentioned .
We obtained prompt responses from the MEA, including a response subsequent to a mail forwarded by the Chief Minister’s Office in Jaipur. But those only made us feel more dejected. The mails from MEA conveyed that there are no plans in the near future for organising the return of stranded Indians, and requested us to have patience and advised us to contact the High Commission at Wellington.
Our initial plans were to return to India by the end of March. The inability to return, and the uncertainty of when we will return has proven stressful. Further, it is not easy to survive here. New Zealand is an expensive country to live in.
Luckily, we are living with acquaintances we have come to know through our friends. It is embarrassing to be their guests for such a long period. We have been here now for more than one month. Our hosts are a couple, who had to work from home during the lockdown. The couple has been gracious enough to accommodate the four of us at the cost of their privacy and independence. The inconveniences we have caused our hosts disturbs us a lot, and has been a nagging emotional pain.
Even as we consider us lucky to have received free stay, not all of them are in a similar situation. Many stranded Indians are spending 100 NZD per day for accommodation. Some have been able to get apartments on a weekly rent, which is a little cheaper, but gruelling nonetheless.
The expenses to stay here are typically about 100 NZD per person per week. The High Commission had assured of providing weekly vouchers but we got them only once in the first week of April. The High Commission officials invited us to the commission office to collect groceries being distributed by some charitable organisations but many of us could not reach there as travelling the distance would have cost us heavily.
The four of us are nearing 60 years, and and need regular medical attention. The prescriptions drawn in India are not valid here and getting an appointment to consult a physician is not easy. A single consultation in what are known as ‘after-hours clinics’ is relatively easier and costs about Rs 6,000 per sitting. The cost of medicines being extra.
People in our care are currently living alone back at home, increasing our anxiety and desperation to return.
Considering the uncertainty of the lockdown period in our country, and sealing of borders for incoming flights, various airlines have cancelled flights. Our travel agent does not respond. Our return bookings do not even show on its website.
Our airline has flatly refused us any refund. When we think of transit restrictions imposed by countries like Australia and Singapore, from where most of the connecting flights to India operate, the bleakness of our circumstances only stares harder.
Governments of various countries have repatriated their citizens, and the New Zealand government also wants all tourists to return home and leave the country at the earliest. The only way to return home is through the help of the Indian government. The German government, with the help of its national carrier Lufthansa, has flown back about 10,000 of its citizens from New Zealand about two weeks ago.
So why are we, legitimate citizens of India, being left out?
Due to the lockdown in New Zealand for more than four weeks now, we have been under effective self-quarantine. We do not pose any threat of spreading the virus.
New Zealand government has already arranged flights to bring back its citizens stranded in India.
I had also written to the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister of NZ requesting them to organise the return of Indian citizens while organizing repatriation of NZ citizens from India.
As many as 700 Indians are stranded in New Zealand. It is our appeal to the government of India to collaborate with the NZ government and get us home.
The authors are Professors of Physics in University of Rajasthan, Jaipur.