Just over a fortnight ago, on April 8, Jacinda Ardern announced that flights to and from India would be temporarily suspended for two weeks from April 11 — because of the high number of arrivals testing positive for Covid-19. Dr Sapna Samant and Professor Mohan Datta analyse the communication of the decision.
Inevitably and predictably, the prime minister’s announcement did not go down well in the Indian community.
There was a flurry of shocked reactions from leaders of the Indian community, who accused the government of racism. They warned of potential disruption in trade relations and said that the New Zealand brand would take a beating in India, among other things.
It wasn’t until later that we got the discussion about the science, the data, the legality of this temporary suspension, and the rights of returning New Zealanders from India.
And only then did it become apparent that the decision was a necessary public health measure. The temporary suspension of flights to and from India was to keep us safe. That is not in question.
But there is still justifiable discomfort about how the decision was communicated and carried out.
Let’s break it down.
Covid-19 modeller Rodney Jones warned back in September last year that New Zealand might have to close the border to people returning “from countries with a high risk of Covid-19 like India”.
Anyone following the pandemic measures being adopted by the Modi-led government in India would have known that the public health response to Covid in India has had major gaps.
They would have noted that, despite the Serum Institute of India — the largest vaccine manufacturer in the world — producing the vaccine locally in partnership with Astrazeneca, there were never going to be enough vaccines for such a populous country.
Vaccines cannot be effective without adequate public health measures — and the signs weren’t good. The central government of India didn’t have a management plan or projections based on evidence. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah don’t wear masks and haven’t had any scientific discussion around Covid-19. On top of that, there have been massive election rallies in different states and Hindu festivals where people have gathered in droves.
So how on earth were the masses expected to maintain precautions? We flout rules in Aotearoa even though Covid-19 is a priority for our government who make it a constant in the nation’s consciousness.
Not surprisingly, there was a surge of Covid-19 cases in India two months ago, and all kinds of strains flourishing there too. India was a hotspot that was getting hotter and hotter.
Even with the introduction of pre-flight Covid tests, the risk was still likely to be high. Anyone heading here has to be tested 72 hours before their first international flight. But if someone is flying from a small town to a big city and goes straight from the domestic terminal to the international terminal, what are the chances of them catching Covid-19 after this test?
Let’s assume that, based on their information and modelling, the New Zealand government knew that a suspension of travel from India might need to happen.
How should a government who understood the sensitivities around such a move have acted? What should it have done?
Well, here’s what our government did not do.
It did not flag India as a hotspot, nor did it explain specifically to the Indian community that there might be a disruption. There was no community-engaged culturally-grounded health communication to foreshadow and prepare for the travel restriction.
Our prime minister talks about kindness all the time, but the many travellers, the many separated families, the migrants in hardship, all with dreams shattered and money down the drain, seem to be invisible to her. Even though she plays saree dress-up at Indian events.
Jacinda sprinkles the word “kind” like fairy dust at a birthday party. But “kind” would have been an empathetic warning of potential action to suspend flights. “Kind” would have been speaking directly to a community after she announced the suspension.
Like: “Hey, this is why we’re suspending flights and I’m really sorry for the trouble it’s causing you. I‘ll try and resolve the matter within two weeks. Meanwhile, be safe. Wear a mask. Here is a virtual hug.”
How hard is it to make that video and upload it across social platforms? How hard is it to engage in a dialogue that explains the evidence guiding the decision?
And how differently might this have played out if kindness and understanding had factored in the way this decision was announced?
It’s not good enough to make a blunt, abrupt announcement and then blithely dismiss the community’s discomfort and its concerns around racism, as if those considerations are irrelevant or unreasonable. In a multicultural society where white supremacy is still the default setting, race is never not a factor.
It’s entirely understandable that many in the Indian community saw the suspension as a racist decision.
But the racist decision was not warning us before the suspension happened. The racist decision was not directly addressing the community after announcing it.
Not seeing brown people as deserving dialogue, only seeing their votes, is what constitutes a racist strategy.
If not the prime minister, then our Indian representatives in parliament should have spoken to the community they purport to represent.
Gaurav Sharma, the Labour MP from Hamilton East is a GP. He took his oath in Sanskrit. The classic language of ancient texts. Also a caste marker and a tool of oppression for centuries. He is an upper-caste Hindu, MP of a “progressive” party who uncritically used a language to propagate “Indian” culture as a Brahmanical singularity.
But he has not, as a doctor, as an Indian, nor as a member of parliament, posted a message in Hindi or his mother tongue Pahadi, or even in English, to assuage the anxiety of the Indian community.
Neither has Priyanca Radhakrishan, the minister for ethnic communities, youth and diversity. She has not said anything in her mother tongue Malayalam. Past National MPs Kanwaljeet Bakshi and Paramjeet Parmar let themselves be humiliated by Simon Bridges and Jamie Lee Ross yet they haven’t come out to stand up for the community that supported them during their time in parliament.
We will see them at Diwali this year talking about how good triumphed over evil. All lip service and self-preservation, pleasing their Pākehā bosses. Dead silent at critical moments.
But science and health communication also has hierarchies that prevent the information from flowing downwards. The information was in English and it was distributed through mainstream media. How many non-English-speaking Indians access mainstream media? How many Indians might want to understand simple communication in their own language from a familiar-looking person?
In 2018 at Diwali in parliament, Jenny Salesa, then minister of ethnic communities, talked about Indians as highly educated, with doctors, engineers, accountants, and high income people, urging those people to join the public service. It was her favourite thing to say at all Indian events.
This is the model minority narrative that the conservatives in our community love. Jenny is now assistant speaker. Did she suggest to the government, to the Covid communications team, or even approach some of those highly educated Indians with their skills that she admires, to explain the evidence in Indian languages to the community?
That is the discomfort. We are part of the team of five million and yet we are not.
Top-down multiculturalism treats migrant cultures as a monolith. Both the government and the mainstream media treat our community as static and homogeneous, and fail to recognise our heterogeneity and diversity.
This is the space of othering, that makes it easier for us to be seen as less deserving of considerations, of kindnesses, that “the mainstream” take for granted.
And it is not new. Butter chicken, mango lassi, Bollywood, Diwali and cricket. Dairies. Economic migrants.
This is perpetuated by the Indian community at the same time. We fail to stand at the intersection and we fail to participate in social discourse. Too often deferring to Pākehā.
Today marks two weeks since the ban was enforced — and two days ago, the government announced that only New Zealand citizens, and their partners, children and parents, will be allowed in from India under a “very high risk” category that also includes those from Pakistan, Brazil and Papua New Guinea.
This, after a fortnight without updates or any communication with the affected people. As if a brief announcement during the usual afternoon press conference will suffice and people can make plans based on that.
How many residents who anticipated returning home are now stranded until another sudden decision? On what basis will they make plans? And if they have partners or children in New Zealand, how are they affected?
It’s here that the government needs to be transparent. The situation in India is only going to get worse over the next few months and effective communication means it’s crucial to talk directly to people — not only to inform, but to also acknowledge and empathise.
That is what it means to be actively anti-racist. And that is true kindness.
Sapna Samant is a GP, a filmmaker, a writer, a mother, a student and a disruptor. All her mahi is built around creating space for and telling stories of tau iwi and tangata with ethnic migrant backgrounds.
Mohan J Dutta is Dean’s Chair Professor and Director of the Center for Culture-Centered Approach to Research and Evaluation (CARE) at Massey University. His activism and scholarship explore a justice-based approach to indigenous rights, labour rights, and anti-racist struggles.
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