In her final speech as New Zealand prime minister, Jacinda Ardern was asked what she wants to be remembered for.
She responded with a single line: ‘As someone who always tried to be kind.’
For more than two years New Zealanders were locked out of their own country as Ardern imposed some of the harshest Covid restrictions in the world.
Like many New Zealanders living overseas, I will not remember this time as a display of her trademark brand of kindness and empathy.
Jacinda Ardern has choked back tears as she announced her resignation as New Zealand Prime Minister
I moved to Sydney with the understanding that I was always a three-hour flight away from my family in Wellington, but like the vast majority of expats I was unable to return home for more than two years.
This really hit home for me when my mother, a mental health nurse, was kicked down the stairs by a patient and suffered a devastating concussion, and Ardern’s draconian border closures meant I couldn’t be there for her when she needed me most.
In a staggering human rights violation, New Zealand citizens overseas had to apply to enter their own country, with a small number of places only available via an online lottery system.
More than 50,000 Kiwis applied to gain entry every month, but only 5,000 were let in.
In a staggering human rights violation, New Zealand citizens overseas had to apply to enter their own country, writes Cameron Carpenter
And then, once you won a place, you’d have to pay more $3,100 to stay at a government-run quarantine hotel for 14 days, where the Army guarded the entrances to ensure no one left.
Detainees were only allowed out of their room for just one hour a day – usually for a walk around the hotel’s carpark.
But those rules, which we were told were absolutely necessary to stop the spread of Covid and save lives, didn’t apply if you were rich or a sports star.
A loophole allowed the wealthy and the political elite to avoid hotel quarantine completely by travelling to New Zealand on private jets and then self-isolating at home.
New Zealand citizen Paul Mullally was forced to say his final goodbye to his dying mother via a video link due to Jacinda Ardern’s draconian Covid rules
International sports stars were able to jump the quarantine queue to play in New Zealand, and the government paid for their stays in managed isolation. They were also granted training exemptions allowing them to leave the facilities.
But ordinary Kiwis were locked out of the country, with countless stories of overseas-based New Zealanders missing births, funerals, weddings and other events.
New Zealand citizen Paul Mullally was forced to say his final goodbye to his dying mother via a video link, because his application for the family to return, filed nine days earlier, was still pending when she passed away.
Pregnant New Zealand journalist Charlotte Bellis, who was stranded in Afghanistan was forced to turn to the Taliban for help after being unable to return to New Zealand to give birth due to the rules.
Charlotte Bellis, 35, a New Zealand journalist who had been working in the Middle East, had been struggling to return home to give birth due to Jacinda Ardern’s strict Covid rules
Only after her story sparked outrage internationally did New Zealand officials back down and offer her a spot in quarantine.
She accepted, as pregnancy can be a death sentence in Afghanistan because of the poor state of maternity care.
During the initial stages of the pandemic, Ardern’s decision to limit entry was accepted by most New Zealanders as we still knew so little about Covid-19.
But Kiwis were still banned from entering until February 2022 – even though the majority of the nation was vaccinated and the Omicron variant proved to have a much lower fatality rate.
This put New Zealand completely out-of-step with the rest of the world, which was already learning how to live with the virus.
For international tourists hoping to travel to New Zealand the wait was even longer, with Ardern refusing to open the borders until October.
Ardern tried to justified the harsh controls by saying ‘not everyone could come home when they wanted to, but COVID could not come in when it wanted to, either.’
But despite her flimsy justifications, many Kiwis will forever associate her decision to stop them from entering her own country with heartache.
At the end of her resignation speech Ardern declared, ‘I hope I leave behind a belief that you can be kind. Empathetic, but decisive. Optimistic, but focused.’
For New Zealanders like me, she leaves behind the lasting memory of the cruelty of her pandemic policies.
And to add insult to injury, her surprise resignation because she ‘doesn’t have enough in the tank’ leaves the country in limbo, with no obvious successor, a struggling economy and inflation surging out of control.
What’s kind about that?