Silicon Valley, New Zealand and Pandemic Exceptionalism

There are some crises that never touch the well-heeled.  Money, like flab, insulates them from bruising.  The generally applied laws of a state can be treated as meaningless jottings; the citizenry ignored with class contempt.  But few can blame the world’s sixth wealthiest person, Larry Page, for circumstances that were gifted to him.  An opportunity presented itself, and the country he finds himself a resident of, despite being shut because of COVID-19, was willing to make an exception.

Google’s co-founder was granted residency under New Zealand’s wealthy investors scheme, requiring an investment of at least NZ$10 million (US$5 million) over a period of three years.  Immigration New Zealand enthusiastically promotes the “Investor Plus” visa as giving the applicant a chance “to come to New Zealand with your family and enjoy our unique lifestyle”.  The successful applicant is also permitted “to bring your car, boat and household items to New Zealand, free of customs charges.”

Page’s application was lodged in November, though it could not be processed as he was offshore at the time.  This changed in January, when he was permitted to land in New Zealand because his son faced a medical emergency.  “Once Mr Page entered New Zealand, his application was able to be processed and it was approved on 4 February 2021,” Immigration New Zealand stated.

Both Page and his son were based in Fiji at the time, and were reportedly evacuated aboard a New Zealand air ambulance.  Details of an operation with all the trimmings of bought favouritism were supplied to members of Parliament by Health Minister Andrew Little.  “The day after the application was received, a New Zealand air ambulance staffed by a New Zealand ICU nurse-escort medevaced the child and an adult family member from Fiji to New Zealand.”

On arriving in New Zealand “the child and adult”, as a privacy conscious Little described them, “were taken immediately to an isolation environment in the hospital.  In the event of discharge within 14 days, the child and the adult would have been required to be transferred to managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ), and I am advised that all COVID-19 orders in this respect were complied with.”

The inevitable insinuation here was that Page and his progeny had received exceptional treatment.  The New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, canonised by popular press and supposedly decent organs of opinion, preferred to shift the scrutiny to medical expertise.  “With all (medevac) cases, those are decisions for clinicians, and I absolutely trust our clinicians to make decisions.”

The Health Minister gave his own special gloss to the issue, never once mentioning the economic nature of the visa.  The issue was less one of singular treatment than singular circumstances.  Only 99 patients had been accepted under the medevac scheme in the previous financial year, the majority of whom had come from the Pacific Islands.  Individuals who received treatment covered their own costs if not eligible under publicly funded services; costs for the evacuation were covered by government agreements, private insurance or direct payment.

Brooke van Velden, deputy leader of ACT New Zealand, a party of the right self-described as a protector of free trade and the rule of law, was unimpressed by the explanations.  The applications for emergency MIQ spots by 190 people had been declined “despite having no option but to return to New Zealand”.  Little reiterated that this had been a medical emergency that had met all the “standard conditions” though he refused to confirm whether Page had actually paid for it: “[P]eople who come here for medical reasons [who] have the benefit of our medical services are entitled to medical privacy, and I intend to observe that.”

Fiji had also closed its borders to foreign travellers, but made an exception to Page and his ilk, who found themselves in the Pacific country as part of its Blue Lanes initiative.  The programme has been used to approve the entry and passage of super yachts and private jet owners as part of its COVID Safe Economic Recovery Framework.  In March, Fiji’s Minister for Commerce, Trade, Tourism and Transport, Faiyaz Koya, described the scheme as giving “yachters from around the world the chance to join Fijians in COVID-Contained paradise.  With more than 330 days since the last local case of the coronavirus in Fiji and more than 100 vessels approved, Fiji’s Blue Lanes represent the safest and most sustainable tourism pathway in the world.”  Sustainability and the stinking rich seem something of a mismatch, but countries remain desperate to bring in the lucre, even if this comes with spades of hypocrisy.

Isolated, secure countries tend to attract the wealthy, notably in desperate times.  Those fretting about imminent apocalypse and global collapse have seen New Zealand as the ideal retreat, an insurance of perfect insularity.  The billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal and early Facebook investor, declared in 2011 that he had found “no other country that aligns more with my view of the future than New Zealand”.  Despite never living in the country, he was granted citizenship by Nathan Guy, a minister of internal affairs besotted with his record as “a great ambassador for New Zealand” who had “invested a lot in New Zealand” and had “great reach into the US”.  Thiel did not even have to leave California for the ceremony, being given permission to conduct it at the New Zealand consulate in Santa Monica.

Five years later, Thiel revealed to the New Yorker that both he and programmer and entrepreneur Sam Altman would fly to the former’s New Zealand residence in the event of a crippling global event. “Sam is not particularly religious, but he is culturally very Jewish – an optimist yet a survivalist, with a sense that things can always go deeply wrong, and that there’s no single place in the world where you’re deeply at home.” Well, perhaps apart from the Land of the Long White Cloud.

Van Velden is certainly suspicious that the Page Affair is merely another instance of fond favour to those with deep pockets.  New Zealand may pride itself as a model of COVID-19 suppression with punitive protections and restrictions but dispensations can be made.  “The government,” she claimed in a statement, “is sending a message that money is more important than doctors, fruit pickers and families who are separated from their children.”  Got it in one.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: Read other articles by Binoy.