There are some stories you just can’t make up, where truth is stranger than fiction. In the age of COVID-19 there have been more of these stories than usual. But this story might just top them all.
New Zealander Charlotte Bellis was a journalist with Al Jazeera, based in Doha, Qatar, and known for being one of only three women allowed at the Taliban press conferences following the fall of Kabul in August last year.
Charlotte and her partner Jim, a photographer for the New York Times, made headlines around the world after they revealed that New Zealand's pandemic restrictions meant they were turned away from the basic care they required, finding it instead in the open arms of the Taliban.
Charlotte wrote for the NZ Herald the story of finding out she was pregnant in Doha, and the scrambling search for a place to live. Charlotte and Jim are unmarried, making their pregnancy a crime in Qatar.
Unable to stay in Jim’s home country in Belgium because of Shengen zone rules, the pair began their bid for one of New Zealand’s coveted MIQ (Managed Isolation and Quarantine) spots, the only way for a Kiwi to return home during the pandemic.
Without luck, they were over the moon to hear the New Zealand border would come down in February of 2022, giving them just enough time to get home before their due date. They booked their tickets and continued their search for somewhere to stay. The only place they both had visas for was Afghanistan.
Charlotte recalls the conversation she had with her ‘senior Taliban contacts’, when she told them of her situation and they replied with smiles: “We're happy for you, you can come and you won't have a problem. Just tell people you're married and if it escalates, call us. Don't worry. Everything will be fine."
As Charlotte put it, “When the Taliban offers you – a pregnant, unmarried woman – safe haven, you know your situation is messed up.”
Then, as Australians and New Zealanders alike have become too accustomed to, the rules changed. The border reopening was “delayed” indefinitely and only emergency MIQ spaces were available.
So again, Charlotte and Jim began the process of applying for an emergency MIQ spot, only to be rejected on the 24th of January.
They were given two reasons, firstly that their travel dates were more than 14 days out, and secondly, because they “did not provide any evidence” that they “have a scheduled medical treatment in New Zealand”, that it is “time-critical” and that they “cannot obtain or access the same treatment in [their] current location”.
Unlike many New Zealanders, Charlotte has connections within the media and politics. After telling them her story, things began to change. Suddenly her application was being reviewed again.
“My lawyer has taken MIQ to court eight times on behalf of rejected, pregnant Kiwis. Just before the case, every time, MIQ miraculously finds them a room. It's an effective way to quash a case and avoid setting a legal precedent that would find that MIQ does in fact breach New Zealand's Bill of Rights.
“While Jim and I still have not been approved to return to New Zealand, I will not sit in Kabul, hopeful they will slide us through the back door of MIQ. They rejected us, like they have so many thousands of other desperate New Zealanders, and seemingly, because of who we are and the resources we have. They have quietly overturned their ruling and are now ‘reviewing our application’.”
Charlotte and Jim have made the decision to speak out, knowing that this may put their application at risk but knowing it is worth it to shed light on a dangerous situation.
“I am writing this because I believe in transparency and I believe that we as a country are better than this…Our story is unique in context, but not in desperation…I thought back to August, and how brutally ironic it was, that I had asked the Taliban what they would do to ensure the rights of women and girls. And now, I am asking the same question of my own Government.”
When governments’ responses to COVID start to put other lives at risk they have gone too far. Abandoning a New Zealand citizen to Taliban-run Afghanistan for the birth of a child is unacceptable behaviour from the New Zealand government.
It unnecessarily puts at risk mother and child, as Charlotte notes in her article, referring to a story she did on a maternity hospital in Kabul:
“They couldn't do caesarean deliveries and the only medicine they had were tabs of paracetamol wrapped in crinkled newspaper. The hospital staff said even those would run out in a month's time. The UN wrote recently that they expect an extra 50,000 women will die during childbirth in Afghanistan by 2025 because of the state of maternity care. Note "extra" – the total will be closer to 70,000.
“Here, getting pregnant can be a death sentence.”
Managing COVID-19 has been an unenviable challenge for governments, but as we have written previously with regard to the rise in stillbirths during lockdowns, “whilst governments around the world have tried to protect the health of their citizens, they have also inadvertently hurt people’s health”. And in this case, like too many others, questionable decisions have risked the lives of some of the most vulnerable – pregnant women and their unborn children.
A few days after Charlotte’s piece was published, the New Zealand government announced a five-step process to do away with MIQ for all but the unvaccinated. There are some who say the announcement is too little too late, with others concerned that vaccination and self-isolation requirements will still be prohibitive and harmful for vulnerable Kiwis.