Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

The Membership Lottery: New Zealand’s COVID-19 Quarantine and the Convergence of Border and Infectious Disease Control



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Post by Claudia McHardy and Juliette McHardy. Claudia is Book Review Editor for Border Criminologies and a DPhil Candidate in Criminology at the University of Oxford. Her research examines the deportation of New Zealand nationals from Australia. Juliette is a Fellow at Georgetown University’s O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law. She works on countering the commercial determinants of noncommunicable disease and centring human rights in the HIV/AIDS response.


Quarantine facility. Source: NZ Herald


“Right, there are enough of you Kiwis in the US, Canada and Mexico to justify a boat from Hawaii. It won't be a big cruise ship, but there are enough of you to justify a large private vessel … please respond to this message with how many other NZers you are bringing with you, and what your possible travel dates are.” August 7, 2021 [MIQ: NZ Managed Isolation and Quarantine]

Over the course of the pandemic, a number of wealthier New Zealanders living abroad began hatching plans to purchase or hire ships to take them home from places as varied as Palau, Fiji, Tahiti, Indonesia, and Hawai’i. Due to the fantastic costs and the dangers entailed by ocean seafaring, none of these amateur expeditions set sail but several smaller voyages from Australia to New Zealand did succeed. By reaching New Zealand on boat, these crews evaded the country’s strict public health border restrictions. 

Since April 2020, New Zealand has required all citizens and residents crossing the border to undergo a mandatory fourteen-day quarantine at government run hotels and, with limited exceptions, barred entry to all others. The mismatch between the necessarily limited number of rooms available and the significant number of people seeking to cross the border has required the government to ration quarantine spots. This has taken the form of regular voucher releases, originally allocated through a first-come-first-serve basis and, from August 2021, through a lottery system where the chances of securing a spot are on average 1 in 10. 

A network known as Grounded Kiwis submitted an open letter to Parliament accompanied by a petition calling for an end to the quarantine policy. According to the group, the government’s disregard for overseas New Zealanders has “conveyed the message that these Kiwis are second class citizens”. The expectation that citizenship should guarantee entry into the territory underpins much of the criticism levelled at New Zealand’s quarantine regime and in particular the lottery system which makes the exercise of citizenship rights a game of chance. As one Grounded Kiwi explained, the government has “failed us as New Zealand citizens, we are entitled to come home”. 

Lost in the furore over the subversion of citizenship rights is the question of why the rights of citizens should take precedence over those of non-citizens or indeed the imperatives of public health. The preferential treatment of citizens carries no public health rationale (the basic fact of citizenship does not, of course, confer a lower risk of carrying the virus), and while citizenship is an entitlement for entry, grounded in domestic and international law, non-citizens may have reasons to enter New Zealand which are just as compelling as those of citizens. Non-citizens have also been separated from family, unable to pursue educational or economic opportunities, and cut off from the place they call home. Non-citizens without residency, however, are only permitted entry or re-entry after fulfilling the criteria of a highly selective “critical purposes” visa

Students and international workers on temporary visas have been unable to leave the country for fear they will be barred from re-entry. For PhD student Justin Sobion, this meant indefinite separation from his wife. Natasha James, a South African nurse who immigrated to New Zealand before the start of the pandemic, was separated from her husband and three young children by the border closure. Meanwhile, offshore migrants with significant ties to New Zealand but without residency status have been locked out of the country as their visas expire, inspiring a three-day protest in Delhi. The protest was organised by Migrants Rights Network NZ, an activist collaboration started in response to pandemic related hardships with a Facebook group of over 7,700 members. Another group, NZ Citizens And PR’s Separated from Partners by NZ Border Closure, has more than 3,600 members. 

Protest in Delhi. Source: Migrant Rights Network


Having secured a travel exemption and won the quarantine lottery, the non-citizen faces an additional barrier: for their hotel room, they are required to pay $1,150 NZD above the citizen rate. Moreover, only non-citizens are subject to a vaccine requirement. These extra conditions remind us that the non-citizen is, to borrow Kanstroom’s (2007) phrase, an “eternal guest”. While subverting some citizenship rights, New Zealand’s Covid border simultaneously reaffirms and naturalises the primacy of citizenship over other forms of belonging. 

While citizenship is favoured, it is not indispensable. Around 10 percent of quarantine spots are set aside for people, irrespective of citizenship status, who are deemed essential to New Zealand’s economy. These have included international sports teams, the owners of yacht racing teams, Olympic athletes and 271 Lord of the Rings crew members. The cohort is guaranteed entry and a place in quarantine, bypassing the lottery system. More than 4000 non-citizens entered the country on this travel exemption while over 1000 refugees remained in limbo, waiting to take up residency in New Zealand. As the border opens for sports and TV stars but remains closed to refugees, we are reminded of the much older and crueller lottery of geography and birth. 

New Zealand’s quarantine system conforms to what Barker (2013) describes as the basic function of borders everywhere: to act as gatekeepers of membership. While rationalised in terms of public health, the policy is beholden to interests of migration control, economics, and state building, and is most of all contingent on prevailing conceptions of who belongs and who does not. We should think critically about the convergence of border control with public health and the capacity for crises, like a global pandemic, to harden nation state borders and the hegemony of citizenship, even to the detriment of public health outcomes.



Although the pandemic experience has provided strong evidence that well-implemented travel restrictions can be highly effective public health tools, there is no evidence that citizens or others considered priorities by governments pose any less of a threat to public health. It is important to not lose sight of the objections which underpinned a pre-pandemic public health consensus that resisted travel restrictions because of their apparent futility and potential to undermine global cooperation and solidarity. Critical attention on public health based bordering is urgently needed as two upcoming reform initiatives propose cementing such practices in international law. As public health learns to love the border, there is a grave risk that the technical language of evidence-based infectious disease control will further obfuscate what Bowling (2013) calls the “global apartheid” of mobility.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

McHardy, C. and McHardy, J.  (2021). The Membership Lottery: New Zealand’s COVID-19 Quarantine and the Convergence of Border and Infectious Disease Control. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2021/11/membership [date]

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