Strange Work in Familiar Places: Inside Aotearoa/New Zealand’s Border Hotels

Author: Joe Clifford is a postgraduate student in the Development Studies department at the University of Auckland. He is also affiliated with the Australian National University. His current research focuses on nationalism and development in Indonesia since the transition to democracy. During the course of the pandemic he has also been working in a community based assessment centre in Auckland.

Naku te rourounau te rourouka ora ai te iwi

With your basket and my basket the people will live

– Whakataukī or Māori Proverb

Borders are inherently political. They demarcate the boundaries of administrative control and imagined belonging. COVID, as with almost everything, has at least temporarily deeply altered how borders and the types of work in border zones are conducted. In Aotearoa/New Zealand, our borders have been effectively closed to all but returning Kiwis and a handful of others with special humanitarian or economic exceptions. All those who now enter the country must spend two weeks in a managed isolation facility before being allowed to enter the community. For 102 days these borders were effective in maintaining Aotearoa/New Zealand’s  elimination status of the virus.

Since the beginning of the pandemic the state has commandeered the four and five-star hotels spread throughout Auckland’s CBD in order to form a boundary between the virus-free community and those potentially incubating the virus. Two clear consequences of this have been the extension of Aotearoa/New Zealand’s borders into the heart of our major cities and the scrambling to fill the new types of work that these spaces have created. As a member of a team who swab guests in isolation for COVID, I have been drawn into the new types of work these borders have created and been involved in the repurposing of parts of the city for the anti-COVID response.

As with many aspects of the COVID crisis, the reassignment of these hotels as isolation facilities has been disorientating. I have been working in full PPE in the same hall where my high school leavers ball was held. The hotel across from my old university, one I would pass on my walk from my flat to the central city, is currently infamous for a guest who escaped isolation early. Metal fences block off corporate lobbies from the city outside. These makeshift barriers now act as an extension of the border separating two distinct worlds.

Within the hotels the realities of the world outside  are fully present. Constant hand sanitising and mask wearing is mandatory and the fear of COVID is coupled with the constant boredom of being unable to leave the hotel except for quick walks. The world on the other side of those barriers was far more carefree with no community transmission, meaning packed bars, clubs, and restaurants since the level one restrictions came into effect.

As someone who returned only days before the country entered one of the world’s strictest lockdowns, I have a lot of empathy for those currently in the managed isolation facilities. I was expecting to spend this year conducting fieldwork in Indonesia until the pandemic made that an impossibility. Were I to have had a cancelled flight or not managed to find one of the last tickets on a packed flight from Jakarta to Sydney, I would have spent my isolation period in one of these hotels. Thankfully, upon returning to Aotearoa/New Zealand I was lucky enough to find work in a community-based assessment centre. Most days I now cross Auckland’s new viral borders as part of a team who test all the isolated guests on days three and twelve of their stays.

Strange work in familiar places

A typical day as part of a mobile swabbing team will involve a team of nurses and administrators meeting at our community based assessment centre before driving together to the hotel(s) whose guests we will be swabbing on that day. Donning face masks is mandatory before setting foot in the hotels.  After squeezing through metal fencing panels pulled to one side, the team signs in and reports to the Ministry of Health in the hotel, all the while carrying biowaste bins, boxes full of PPE and swabs. After this we go to the room where we will be testing guests. Gloves, hair nets, eye visors, shoe guards and gowns are then all put on before contact is made with any of the guests staying there.

A well-honed system is then put to work where a line of numbered sample bags with the word ‘biohazard’ stamped on them are placed on a table with unmarked test tubes next to them. When the patients enter and bring their consent forms to our team, their name is written on a test tube. The nurse then swabs the patient before placing the sealed tube into the corresponding sample bag, matching the number on the test tube with the number on the biohazard bag. When done effectively, this system operates much like the Just-In-Time manufacturing, where goods are always meant to be in motion.

In this case, a test tube has a name written on it just as the nurse picks it up to swab that person. Swabbing the guest involves having a long cotton bud inserted into the nose reaching to the nasopharynx which is then rotated for ten seconds. Once the swab is removed from the nose it is placed in the test tube and dropped into an open and waiting specimen bag. As soon as the test tube is placed here, the bag is sealed and put in a secure container. This process is repeated for each guest on days three and twelve of their stays. Most of the nurses with whom I work are used to working in urgent care or emergency departments and have had to adapt their skills to what has become the clinical equivalent of a production line. The only deviation from this process, which allows us to swab hundreds of people a day, is to console a child who does not want to be swabbed or to work with a translator to answer questions of a guest who does not speak English. The alienation of what can be quite an impersonal approach is lessened by knowing that this labour is potentially lifesaving.

One of the less reported economic consequences of the COVID fallout in Aotearoa/New Zealand is the sudden change in the types of work many are now doing. While the wage and business subsidy has kept some afloat, a large segment of the work force has been furloughed, made redundant or had hours reduced. For a country where in 2019 tourism accounted for 5.2% of GDP and a further indirect value of 4% (MBIE), closing the borders to all but returning Kiwis and a handful of people considered to be of too high an economic worth to turn away has decimated an industry expected to have near limitless capacity for growth.

Large national employers, most notably Air New Zealand, have dramatically cut their number of staff in response to this sector’s collapse. The consequence of this is a strange COVID economy where those who may have otherwise found themselves unemployed have been pulled into feeding, cleaning, swabbing, performing health checks and guarding the more than 64,000 New Zealanders who have returned here since the announcement of the lockdown. With such high numbers of returnees, a temporary industry has been created in response to managing these new border zones. For those of us who have found this strange new work in such familiar places, it is a lifeline that has very slightly softened the economic fallout of COVID.

The border hotels are now one of the few places that are now actively creating jobs in Auckland and radically redefining how so many of us work. The hotels themselves have multiple organisations working within them –The Ministry of Health, the hotel staff, the police, aviation security, the navy or air force depending on the hotel, nurses acting as contractors who perform daily health checks on guests, and the team I am a part of, which is a contractor who swabs the guest and works with Auckland District Health Board. The reallocation of so many workers to these border hotels has changed my daily life. As a disrupted PhD student, I have spent large parts of day (until as late as March) liaising with flight attendants and ground crew. We would coordinate on how best to manage the flow of those in quarantine coming to the swabbing room. In the instances where people are less cooperative, I get to witness how their customer service training is applied to negotiate with those who try to delay their tests. Similarly, now that the military has a presence within these hotels, friends of mine who were working as technicians on aircraft have now become security guards and help escort disabled guests to different areas of the hotels.

Re-assessing the value of work

Within the hotels the work being performed is often not technical nor well paid. However, its public health value is critical. The disconnect between the social importance of low paid or ‘low skilled’ labour and its social value has yet to be properly addressed. My experience working within these border hotels has thrown this into even sharper relief. Despite this ongoing disconnect, a new space in the national conversation about the types of work that are essential and most valuable is beginning, albeit slowly, to take place.

That COVID has ruptured so much of what we take for granted is something of a platitude now. However, one of the ruptures that is especially interesting for anthropologists to consider is how we ascribe value to different types of work. Our current economic system is geared primarily to understanding value as something that can be exchanged or generate capital, a rubric that has proven to be completely inefficient in responding to a pandemic. And in contrast to this system of understanding value solely within market logic, there has been a partial acknowledgement of how reliant we all are on often dismissed or overlooked labour. Cashiers, cleaners, and supermarket shelf stockers went from invisible to having their essential status publicly declared with the Prime Minister publicly thanking Rose Kavapalu, a cleaner in Ōtāhuhu. The new appreciation of previously dismissed types of work may be short lived, and the ongoing fight for a living wage is certainly not won; however, this crisis has opened a space in which broader conversations about the value of the work of someone like Rose may become unavoidable.

This shifting of our social and political horizons has meant ideas that would have been previously dismissed as utopian fantasies, such as housing all rough sleepers, came close to reality during the six-week lockdown as motels and other types of housing were freed up. Auckland City Mission worker Chris Farrelly has been quoted in the New Zealand Herald saying, “it’s the closest we’ve come in a generation to getting everyone off the street”. With an election in September that the Labour Party has dubbed the COVID election, and a looming economic crisis, Aotearoa/New Zealand will be forced into a national conversation about work and employment. If the lessons of these hotels are to be translated to national politics, it is that we cannot afford to return to the pre-COVID economy that tolerated people like Rose not receiving a living wage and rough sleepers lining Queen Street while warm rooms and homes sit empty.

[Image of the worker in full PPE in a lockdown building is taken by Chris McLay sourced from Unsplash]

[Image of the frontline doctors and nurses is created by Kevin Kobsic submitted for United Nations Global Call Out To Creatives – help stop the spread of COVID-19, sourced from Unsplash]

[Image of the swab test is created by Russell Tate submitted for United Nations Global Call Out To Creatives – help stop the spread of COVID-19, sourced from Unsplash]

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