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Expats deserve to come home without bankrupting themselves in the process

OPINION: My family of four live in China and we were some of the first Kiwis whose lives were affected by Covid-19.

We have wanted to come home since the outbreak in January, but we couldn't. The price of flights leaving China skyrocketed so fast. We had to choose whether to risk returning home with our savings wiped out and no immediate job prospects, or stay and weather the storm here. Then the decision got taken out of our hands, when, within a week, Air New Zealand cancelled their direct routes to New Zealand from Shanghai, and many countries around the world closed their borders to China. It happened that fast.

We were desperate to come home, crossing off the days until my contract ended and hoping the situation would get better, while trying to ignore the increasingly negative rhetoric in the media about returning Kiwis.

We found flights home on the Air New Zealand website for a reasonable price in July, so we booked them. Unfortunately for us, the flights didn't actually exist and we got the dreaded offer of credit. Credit means nothing if there are no flights and the Air NZ customer service rep advised us that they probably wouldn't fly until the end of August.

Things were getting desperate as my company-provided accommodation and visa were running out. We were looking at two months with no income, no visa, no home and extortionate prices to fly home with an alternate airline. It was looking like about $20,000 to fly the four of us home in economy class with China Eastern. Despite the common perception of us expats rolling in money, we don't just have $20,000 lying around, especially to throw at a flight that may or may not happen.

Thankfully, my work offered an opportunity for me to extend my contract until December, and Air NZ stepped up and refunded our tickets. Just after that, Air NZ announced it was restarting the Shanghai-Auckland route in two weeks. It was too late for us, a contract had already been signed.

For all the people complaining that we had our chance - it isn't that easy. You can't just book a ticket and get on a plane anymore, and some of us have to make some really tough decisions without knowing what will happen in the future. 

So that brings us to now. We are sitting here in China, waiting for my new contract to end and hoping that things don't get worse in the meantime, and then last week I got a call from my mum.

"New Zealand is about to charge returning expats for the cost of quarantine," she informed me. "It'll cost you guys about $5000."  Wow, $5000 for two weeks? Sounds a bit steep to me. It seems like now the New Zealand government, as well as the airlines, are looking to make a buck off the stranded expat.

The media is saying it is justified, that it's cost tax payers over $81 million to put all the returning Kiwis into quarantine. But the media isn't reporting how much money the overseas expats have put into the Kiwi economy by paying taxes in New Zealand while working overseas.

You know what? While the team of five million in New Zealand settled into lockdown to eliminate Covid-19, I was still working and earning money. Money that the New Zealand government takes a percentage of every year when I do a tax return. Money that goes towards things that benefit New Zealanders in New Zealand. You know, things like wage subsidies.

So I figure that if I am forced to stay in a quarantine facility, I am entitled to do this at a fair price.

I want to know, how is this cost justified? Is there an itemised list? Does it really cost the average family of four in New Zealand $5000 to live for two weeks? If so we really need to look at our minimum wage.

I mean, let's be real here for a minute, if I could quarantine my family in my own home, I would. We are living in China, we know how to do quarantine. Having the threat of deportation or being placed in a detention centre are great deterrents to breaking the rules, and the random visits from scary armed guys in uniform to make sure you are following the rules are also pretty good motivators.

I think it is a bit cheeky expecting us to pay full price for staying in a five-star hotel, which we didn't choose and wouldn't even be able to take advantage of the usual amenities that would be provided with such a stay. I don't need a five-star room. A room is a room when you are stuck in there for two weeks.

I am not saying I want a free ride. Charge me for food? Fine. Charge me for power? No worries. But don't charge me rent. I have a house already that I pay a mortgage on. Don't charge me for security because four people out of 23,000 are idiots. I am so sick of being penalised because we were unfortunate enough not to see Covid-19 coming and ended up getting stuck overseas. 

Returning expats bring skills and experience back to New Zealand - we are putting our money back into the New Zealand economy.

We have experience working alongside the pandemic in our respective fields, which will be an advantage if Covid-19 ever breaches the border of New Zealand again, so don't fleece us at the border.

Don't try and tell us that we are costing the tax payer money, not if you have ever used the services entitled to you as a New Zealand citizen. If you have ever accepted a wage subsidy, if you have ever been on a benefit, accepted a pension, driven on New Zealand roads, taken advantage of our subsidised health care system, enjoyed free education.

We are citizens too, we have paid tax and we are entitled to return home without having to bankrupt ourselves in the process. 

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Originally published: https://www.stuff.co.nz

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