Two months after the end of lockdown and the resort hub of Queenstown is slowly showing signs of life. It’s lunchtime at the mall and while many shops and restaurants remain closed, some have begun to trade again, catering to locals and a trickle of domestic travellers.
Those braving the winter cold at outdoor tables look up with mild curiosity as Luan Passarin and Duygu Gundogan meander down the strip, Gundogan wiping back tears as she begs Immigration New Zealand to extend her working holiday visa.
Passarin, 29, guides her to a bench and sits by her side as the heated and emotional conversation drags on. “Please,” Gundogan begs down the phone line. “I am so stressed, you have to help me.”
The pair’s despair is distressing to witness, but nearby diners barely raise an eyebrow, so common has the sight of stranded and anxious travellers become.
“The perception of Queenstown is affluence and money but for many that is a very thin veneer,” says Lieutenant Andrew Wilson of the Salvation Army, which has experienced a 600% rise in demand for welfare services since lockdown began on 25 March.
“Many people are struggling to live week to week here and our migrant population is by far the worst affected.”
The engine of the southern alps resort town is tourism dollars; overseas visitors spend far more than domestic visitors and pump cash into expensive activities such as helicopter flights, bungee jumping and jet-boating.
The town of 40,000 attracts three million visitors a year, over 60% of them from overseas. Unlike other regional centres, where the economy relies on farming or industry, Queenstown has little to fall back on during the pandemic. In the past, on the busiest nights, there were 35 tourists for every local in town. Those days are long gone.
‘I feel so ashamed’
Already on the minimum wage and working without secure contracts or job benefits when lockdown hit, tourism workers – overwhelmingly migrants – were cast adrift; unable to get home and unable to earn a living in New Zealand, or access social welfare benefits.
June forecasts from Infometrics predict the Queenstown economy will contract by a quarter in the next year and 8,000 jobs will be lost.
Passarin, from Brazil, has been in New Zealand for nearly two years and was employed as a kitchen hand pre-lockdown. His marriage broke down in mid-March and he was forced to move into a house with 22 others. With no work and the government’s wage subsidy not yet available, Passarin lived off rice and beans for two weeks before his landlord texted him, telling him to seek help from the council and the Salvation Army.
The 29-year-old was gifted blankets and warm clothes from the Salvation Army, and food vouchers from the council. His landlord also reduced his rent by NZ$35 a week.
“I felt so ashamed [asking for help]. But I got scared after weeks of rice,” says Passarin, who is now back at work on significantly reduced hours. Sometimes, he says, he even works for free just to keep busy.
There were only two repatriation flights for Brazilians and he doesn’t have the savings to purchase a flight home – nor does he want to, describing Brazil as “the frontline of Covid-19”. “I want to stay here. I don’t want to go back home, Brazil is the centre of the pandemic. It’s terrible.”
Following widespread reports of hardship, the Queenstown Lakes District Council set up an emergency hotline and mobilised civil defence. In the past three months more than 7,000 people have applied for welfare assistance, 75-80% of them migrants.
Migrant workers are disproportionately affected because they have been ineligible to access government welfare assistance and have had to make do with handouts from civil defence, locals and charities. Queenstown’s wealthy have been committed and generous in providing donations, social services say, but it’s not a long-term solution.
We’ve got a lot of people in this region who aren’t used to asking for help – and the shame they feel is a real hurdleRobyn Francis
This week, the Red Cross assumed care of foreign nationals stranded in Queenstown, but for some, it has come too late.
“We have seen a rise in suicides,” says Wilson, who also notes a rise in domestic violence and substance abuse post-lockdown. Alcohol abuse is and has always been widespread in Queenstown.
“We’ve had four migrant suicides in three months. That’s the number that motivates me to do as much as I can, but also haunts me. As a nation we could have and should have done more for them.”
Half of the migrants in Queenstown are single between the ages of 20-30,with few financial or social resources to back them up.
Gundogan, 24, from Turkey, is getting increasingly desperate with her visa due to expire in two weeks. Gundogan has some money to go home but doesn’t want to; Covid-19 is “killing people like flies” in Turkey, she says.
“It’s been so stressful, I have literally aged,” says Gungogan, who lives in a rental home with six others and worked as a cocktail waitress before lockdown.
“I have been drinking and trying to party it away. I am in denial. I feel I am stuck in limbo. There is no light in the end of the tunnel in Turkey.”
Queenstown mayor Jim Boult has urged central government to intervene with more financial assistance or repatriation flights home. Social services would also like to see more migrants helped to return home, where they can lean on the support of family and friends.
At community centre Happiness House, social workers believe the current demand for help is just “the tip of the iceberg” with many people – locals and migrants alike – hiding their poverty due to shame and embarrassment.
The drop-in centre has hired new staff and volunteers to cope with unprecedented demand. When the Guardian visited, the cramped rooms were frantic with volunteers packing food and clothing parcels, the corridors jammed with donated goods.
Manager Robyn Francis says Queenstown wouldn’t be able to function without migrant labour.
“We have to look after these people, they are extremely vulnerable right now, as are many locals.” He adds that many social workers are beginning to experience burnout after months of round-the-clock work.
Francis says as the weeks of uncertainty drag on – and the borders remain closed – an acute sense of anxiety is building, as people realise the challenges of Covid-19 are only just beginning.
“We’ve got a lot of people in this region who aren’t used to asking for help – and the shame they feel is a real hurdle. We need to transition out of this fierce independence, the belief that ‘she’ll be right’; and say look it’s not just you, it’s people all over the world.”