Erol Yayboke is deputy director and senior fellow with the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
It is no secret that Covid-19 has had a devastating impact on global human mobility. People fortunate enough to be able to do so have stayed home. For those unable to work from home, such as labor migrants, returning to their countries of origin or continued residence in increasingly risky situations abroad became their only options.
Pre-pandemic estimates suggested that upwards of 200 million migrants were of working age. For many, the past year has meant dealing with a health crisis on one hand and an economic crisis limiting their access to employment on the other, both of which have disproportionately impacted these migrants and their families. Their lack of mobility has also contributed to global economic challenges, especially in sectors (such as construction, tourism, healthcare, agriculture, and food services) dominated by small businesses that rely heavily on informal workers, many of whom are migrants. It is therefore incumbent on business leaders and policy makers to understand and address at least these three migration-related challenges, even as their own more developed countries accelerate vaccination campaigns and recharge economies.
Migrants continue to play an important front-line role in Covid-19 response while being more vulnerable to the spread of the virus. For example, while 30% of doctors and 16% of nurses in the US were born abroad, the negative health impacts of the pandemic (infection, hospitalization, and death) were almost uniformly higher for persons of color. Since less than 20% of immigrants in the US are white, it is safe to say migrants in the US have experienced more negative health impacts. This matters because, as it currently stands, post-pandemic recovery (from public health and economic perspectives) will be built on the backs of the most vulnerable.
Barriers to movement remain, even if migrants are willing to travel again to find work (most are) and are vaccinated (most are not). While more airports and land and sea borders are open today than when lockdowns began in early 2020, 89% of countries have Covid-19 related entry restrictions or conditions as of 1 March 2021. There is reason to believe that some of these restrictions will prove more durable than others, with politicians from Hungary to Italy and from the Philippines to Brazil using Covid-19 to “activate latent authoritarianism” and, in many cases, to increase anti-migrant sentiment. Nevertheless, as movement restrictions slowly turn to conditions — most of the latter of which are medical in nature (for example, negative Covid-19 tests, proof of vaccination, and so on) — human mobility will be accessible mainly to those with documentation not widely accessible to migrants. This could lead to people moving irregularly at greater risk to themselves and their host communities at precisely the time when countries everywhere continue to face a virus that knows no borders and will need healthy migrants to rebuild.
While fiscal stimulus, expanded safety nets, and greater vaccine access will accelerate recovery in some places, they will not be options for most countries. When this slower recovery is coupled with the aforementioned barriers to movement, migrants who do not move irregularly will be forced to seek work within their countries of origin or in neighboring countries where fewer opportunities exist and labor standards may be lower than in their previous labor migration destinations. These decreased standards and incomes could have an impact on person-to-person capital flows critical for developing world economic resilience. Evidence to date suggests that Covid-19 has had a negative overall impact on remittances, though admittedly its effects have been varied. Nevertheless, this combination of factors will likely result in uneven economic recovery post-pandemic and increased inequality between countries (for example, places that reach high levels of vaccination and return to some semblance of economic normalcy versus those that continue to struggle from public health and economic perspectives) and within countries as local elites are able to access vaccines before lower income people and/or temporarily relocate to places (like Chile, Israel, or the US) with higher vaccine penetration. Though affluent people may thus experience shorter-term personal stability or even benefits, slow recovery in critical industries and sectors historically reliant on in-person migrant labor pose more serious longer-term challenges to economic growth.
At less than 4% of the pre-pandemic global population, labor migrants were recently estimated to contribute 10% to global GDP. Yet with few notable exceptions, migrants are not a priority in Covid-19 response and recovery. Though the pandemic has created myriad problems for the private and public sectors, one can expect the long and uneven process of post–Covid-19 recovery to be even longer and more uneven if these challenges are left unaddressed.
Budiman, A, Tamir, C, Mora, L, and Noe-Bustamante, L. “Immigrants in America: Current Data and Demographics.” Pew Research Center's Hispanic Trends Project. Pew Research Center, March 11, 2021.
“COVID-19 Recovery in Hardest-Hit Sectors Could Take More Than 5 Years.” McKinsey & Company. McKinsey & Company, July 29, 2020.
Goździak, EM. “Using Fear of the ‘Other," Orbán Reshapes Migration Policy in a Hungary Built on Cultural Diversity.” migrationpolicy.org. Migration Policy Institute, April 16, 2020.
Harding, B. “Is Coronavirus Making Southeast Asia More Authoritarian?” United States Institute of Peace. United States Institute of Peace, June 18, 2020.
Hartman, TK, Stocks, TV, McKay, R, Gibson-Miller, J, Levita, L, Martinez, AP, Mason, L et al. “The Authoritarian Dynamic During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Effects on Nationalism and Anti-Immigrant Sentiment.” Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2021.
International Migrant Stock 2019. Population Division of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2019.
Kaplan, T. “What's in the Stimulus Bill? A Guide to Where the $1.9 Trillion Is Going.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, March 7, 2021.
Kumar, C, Oommen, E, Fragapane, F, and Foresti, M. “Beyond Gratitude: Lessons Learned from Migrants' Contribution to the Covid-19 Response.” ODI. Overseas Development Institute, March 1, 2021.
Kurmanaev, A. “Latin America Is Facing a 'Decline of Democracy' Under the Pandemic.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, July 29, 2020.
“Migrants Essential to Recovery of Global Development Post COVID-19.” UNDP. United Nations Development Programme, October 21, 2020.
“Migration Data Relevant for the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Migration data portal. Global Migration Data Portal. Accessed March 17, 2021.
Mughogho, T. “De-Mystifying the Effects of COVID-19 on Remittances - World.” ReliefWeb. OCHA, December 8, 2020.
Pianigiani, G, and Bubola, E. “As Coronavirus Reappears in Italy, Migrants Become a Target for Politicians.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, August 28, 2020.
“Remittances.” Migration Data Portal. Global Migration Data Portal, February 23, 2021.
“Travel Restrictions Matrix - March 1st, 2021.” Covid 19 Mobility Impacts. IOM UN Migration, March 1, 2021.
Woetzel, J, Madgavkar, A, Rifai, K, Mattern, F, Bughin, J, Manyika, J, Elmasry, T, di Lodovico, A, and Hasyagar, A. “Global Migration's Impact and Opportunity.” McKinsey & Company. McKinsey & Company, November 30, 2016.