Coronavirus restrictions on movement may jeopardize the lives of the most vulnerable

Staffers from the Secretary of Health take the temperature of Venezuelans returning to the country from Colombia at the Simon Boliviar International Bridge in Cúcuta on Saturday. (Schneyder Mendoza/Afp Via Getty Images)
Staffers from the Secretary of Health take the temperature of Venezuelans returning to the country from Colombia at the Simon Boliviar International Bridge in Cúcuta on Saturday. (Schneyder Mendoza/Afp Via Getty Images)

After years of seeing millions of migrants on the move, the world is now facing a serious crisis of immobility. With diagnosed covid-19 cases now over the 1 million mark, 140 countries have closed their borders to some or all foreign travelers.

In fact, Pew Research Center estimates suggest that 93 percent of the world’s people live in countries with sudden new border restrictions. And from Albania to Zimbabwe, more than one-third of the global population is currently under lockdown or curfew conditions. These pandemic responses are disrupting long-established habits and patterns of movement within communities and countries, as well as global travel.

Despite the shared experience of mass immobility, differences of wealth and status create large differences in how individuals are affected. This disparity also leaves some individuals more exposed than others to the virus itself, while others may face different challenges from the consequences of sudden restrictions on movement.

Asylum seekers, seasonal workers, temporary workers and undocumented migrants face disproportionate risks, and some may be left fending for themselves. How these groups fare in the 2020 pandemic will depend on how governments define “nonessential movement,” and whether they are willing to make any exceptions.

Personal wealth becomes a tool of survival

Wealthier individuals are more likely to be affected only marginally by current mobility restrictions, simply because they can stay at home. Paradoxically, the fact that some people can work from the place where they live implies that others, those who do essential work, “move” for them. For example, delivery people, cleaners, repair workers, gig workers, public service workers and those in the health care sector — as well as anyone with a precarious work contract — may not be able to self-isolate.

While inequalities inherent in free market economies may also play out in the inequalities that arise from the current restrictions on movement, here’s another point to consider. In the new coronavirus society, citizenship now plays a heightened role in who can live and work where. The data we have produced using daily updates from the International Air Transport Association show that the coronavirus travel bans have adverse consequences on seasonal workers, people on short-term residence permits and, in some cases, even long-term residents and their family members.

Passports matter

For instance, our data show that over 100 countries make an exception for their own citizens who are repatriating — returning citizens may face a mandatory quarantine, but they can reenter their home country. But people with less-secure residence permits may now find themselves unable to return to the country where they are supposed to study, work or care for their spouses or families. These individuals may experience an overnight loss of their main source of welfare, as well as significant disruptions to their family and social networks.

In most countries, access to medical treatment already depends on a person’s nationality and residence permit. These inequalities are likely to be exacerbated if countries find their health care systems stressed by covid-19 cases.

A number of governments plan to exclude noncitizens from their economic stimulus plans. This is already the case in the U.S., where people on a legitimate work visa will not be covered by the job stimulus package; and in Australia, where 1.1 million people with temporary work permits will not receive government assistance. By contrast, Portugal extended citizenship rights to all migrants and asylum seekers who have residency applications underway, thus providing them public health care and social security during the state of emergency caused by covid-19.

Others are in a far more precarious situation

Restrictions to movement can also expose people with a precarious migration status to great dangers. Asylum seekers stuck on the U.S.-Mexico border or in Greece’s overcrowded refugee camps may have little access to clean water to wash their hands — and no way to self-isolate in densely populated temporary quarters. These people may rely almost entirely on volunteers, doctors, food and assistance arriving each day. In the event of further quarantine measures or travel restrictions, the situation for these vulnerable populations could quickly become dire.

How do governments strike a balance on mobility decisions?

The coronavirus threat means political leaders confront hard choices in deciding what constitutes “nonessential movement” — who should stay at home, and who must go out each day to meet an essential public need. Of course, countries need essential public services: emergency workers, and those who ensure energy, water, food supplies — not to mention health care workers to tend to the growing numbers of critically ill covid-19 patients. But governments also face choices on who should have the possibility to travel back to a country, and how to be sure that medical equipment and food supplies reach those in need.

The dilemma governments now face is how to stop the spread of covid-19 while limiting the economic and human costs. The trade-off is between complete immobilization of a country through the absolute restriction of movement, and the protection of people whose lives could be jeopardized by these restrictions — including many of the world’s most vulnerable.

Lorenzo Piccoli is a scientific coordinator of the Swiss National Center of Competence in Research for Migration and Mobility Studies at the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland and a research associate at GLOBALCIT at the European University Institute. Follow him on twitter @piccolimeister.

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