At a time when COVID-19 was a far off threat for most Kiwis, Lily Gao had already come face-to-face with the uncertainty and stress of this new disease. Lily was thirteen weeks pregnant and was travelling with her two-year-old daughter, Ellis, when they were caught in the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, China, earlier this year.

Lily is a Chinese Kiwi originally from Wuhan. She and her toddler were visiting family in January when the entire city was overwhelmed and ordered into lockdown because of the rapid spread of COVID-19. Lily was able to escape with Ellis by being chosen to board the first flight evacuating people from the region back to New Zealand.

“When I was in Wuhan and we heard that the virus broke out, it was scary. We were not sure the hospitals would be able to look after us if we got sick. We were there for a month, in lockdown,” explains Lily.

“When I heard the New Zealand Government could take us back, I felt really excited. The journey home was long and stressful, but when we landed in Auckland I thought: ‘Finally! We’re home safely!’, and all the people on the plane applauded.” 


Even after landing in Auckland on 5 February, their long journey home wasn’t over yet. Lily, Ellis and 156 other evacuees went straight into quarantine for 14 days at the Defence Force training base in Whangaparāoa, north of Auckland. This was the first COVID-19-related response in New Zealand, and Red Cross volunteers were there right from the beginning.

Each guest and their bubble were hosted in a motorhome during the quarantine. No one had been able to prepare for this self-isolation and luggage allowance had been restricted for their flight back to New Zealand, so the first thing our team of disaster response volunteers did was listen to what people were missing and work with other agencies involved to meet their needs.

“When we arrived, a kind lady asked me what we needed. I said my daughter only has winter shoes. So the next day, they brought summer shoes for her. They also brought basic necessities like shampoo, conditioner, towels and tissues, as well as toys and books,” shares Lily, who also describes the extra steps volunteers took to look after her.

Lily, her daughter Ellis and Nicky, Red Cross' Disaster Welfare and Support Team member.

“One of the lovely Red Cross volunteers asked me if I had any concerns. I said I was a little bit worried about my pregnancy because my daughter is making me very tired and I feel quite stressed from the journey back to New Zealand.”

“After communicating with me, your volunteer invited a midwife on-site to see me. What thoughtful and warm-hearted people! I never expected to get looked after so well by these people I have never met even once. And after the midwife came, I felt a lot more secure because I knew my pregnancy was fine.”

Nicky van Praagh, one of the disaster response volunteers who helped in the early days of this response, remembers Lily well:

“The first couple of days, Lily was quite anxious and worried, about both Ellis and her pregnancy. But once she’d seen the midwife and after the third day, she appeared to be a lot less stressed. And I could see she was wandering around the camp with Ellis in a stroller and just looking a lot happier.”

A friendly ear

Experiencing an event like COVID-19 can be scary, stressful or worrying. These reactions are normal but can manifest in many different ways, which is why our disaster response volunteers, like those who helped in Whangaparāoa, are trained to provide psychosocial support. An important part of this support is hearing people’s needs and concerns.

“We made them feel like we were listening,” says Monica Bearsley, another Red Cross volunteer who was part of this response.

“Because we are trained in Psychological First Aid, we get the skills to be able to listen. I think it was very important because people were in a situation where they felt vulnerable, concerned, stressed and worried, and our team was there to listen, take it in, then take action.”

Monica and Nicky, two Red Cross volunteers, talking to Ellis.

A total of 19 disaster response volunteers were deployed during the 14-day quarantine period, volunteering well over 900 hours. From setting up an information hub for guests, to coordinating the distribution of food and other items, checking in daily with guests, setting up Zumba and yoga classes, and marking Chinese New Year and Valentine’s Day, the support Red Cross volunteers provided was varied and personalised.

“I really appreciated Red Cross’ help,” says Lily. “Red Cross volunteers took a risk to look after us. I cannot say thank you enough.”

“They did their very best to support and help us through daily life, as well as taking note of our emotional wellbeing. They’re good-natured and warm-hearted, like sunshine in the cold winter days.”

COVID-19 Alert level 4

As the COVID-19 pandemic has reached Aotearoa, New Zealand Red Cross continues to support people in need in our community.

Our essential services ensure thousands of people across the country continue to receive food, medicines and much-needed social and emotional support. From delivering 11,000 Meals on Wheels to people every week, to translating health messages in 15 languages, or delivering medical supplies from pharmacies to vulnerable people, the New Zealand Red Cross whānau is committed to supporting Kiwis through tough times.

  • To keep up to date with how we’re supporting New Zealand, head over here.
  • To support Kiwis in need during the COVID-19 pandemic, donate here.