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Giving Compass' Take:
• Demetrios G. Papademetriou discusses the health and economic challenges COVID-19 poses for international migration and proposes policy solutions.
• What role can donors play in facilitating safe, mutually beneficial international migration?
The COVID-19 pandemic and the policy responses it has set off will leave an indelible legacy on families, societies, and economies. The human costs of the crisis have been devastating. The death toll is more than 1.2 million thus far, making this coronavirus the deadliest pandemic since the 1918–19 Spanish Flu. And that number is rising briskly as the virus spreads throughout the globe and has roared back in most places that had “flattened” the infection curve earlier in the year, while continuing to roam across the United States. The response to the first phase of the pandemic has also brought massive and most likely long-lasting disruptions to livelihoods around the world, as governments imposed strict lockdowns on their populations, closed their borders and radically restricted travel, and effectively shut down large swathes of their economies. And more targeted restrictions, curfews, and lockdowns are once more growing, and will grow further through the fall and winter as infections climb aggressively.
The public-health crisis was rightly the focus for policymakers during the first half of 2020. In fact, the combination of nearly blanket shutdowns, mask-wearing and social-distancing measures, contact tracing and, generally, responsible behavior by most governments and publics led to a retreat of the initial wave of the virus by the end of May. Meanwhile, and as the feverish search for treatments that attenuate the severity of symptoms and lethality of the infection, as well as a vaccine, continues, governments and societies are trying to come to terms with the enormous economic damage wrought by the crisis. The International Monetary Fund in its latest (October) World Economic Outlook continues to project a deep recession for 2020—a contraction in global growth of 4.4 percent (slightly lower than its June update), and 5.8 percent for advanced economies. And the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reports that the GDP contraction for the G20 countries during this year’s second quarter was nearly 4.5 times that of the worst quarter of the Great Recession of the late 2000s.
While employment in some sectors appears to be rebounding, hundreds of millions of jobs have already disappeared, and many more workers have experienced cuts to their hours or pay. Many of these losses will be permanent, especially in the hardest-hit sectors, such as components of retail and travel, arts and entertainment, commercial real estate and the constellation of services it supports, and accommodation and hospitality, and most analysts expect more rounds of layoffs as demand for goods and services limps along and economic stimulus programs are eventually phased out. As a result, many workers and their families are expected to experience severe and extensive economic pain and long-term economic scarring. Meanwhile, the World Bank suggests that remittances may fall by as much as 20 percent in 2020, presenting a huge threat to the well-being of migrant households and origin communities (and less directly, economies) that rely on this income. Finally, public and business debt continues to balloon, presenting its own set of longer-term challenges.
Policymakers now are engaged in trying to manage what has proved to be a most complex and treacherous task: reopening their economies, societies, and—much more gradually—borders, while grappling with the obvious public-health risks that doing so presents. The results have been very troubling, as infection rates have spiked almost uncontrollably in dozens of major cities and subnational jurisdictions across most countries in Europe, the Americas, South Asia, and elsewhere. And so are hospitalization rates.
In the migration realm, the OECD reported in mid-October that global migration fell by 46 percent during the first half of 2020, with the year’s second quarter registering a 72-percent decline—and that it expects global migration to reach “a historic low.” In fact, reopening migration channels will likely take time and will certainly happen incrementally. Governments are constantly rolling out new screening and quarantine protocols for travelers but human behavior is reliably unpredictable, and mitigating the risk requires widespread access to testing and rapid but reliable test results, continued progress in identifying anti-viral and anti-inflammatory therapeutics that suppress the intensity of the infection and improve recovery times, and ultimately the discovery of a safe and effective vaccine that is made widely available. Although remarkable progress is being made in all of these areas, it will take many more months before we turn the corner in this, and even longer before reliable treatments and a vaccine are at hand for most people.
Meanwhile, the depth of the economic downturn is likely to cause some would-be sponsors of immigrants to defer family (re)unification, and spiraling structural unemployment in most advanced economies, coupled with the profound damage to various economic sectors, will require policymakers to revisit some of the pre-pandemic assumptions about how many foreign workers, and with which skill or experience profiles, their economy needs. For instance, although there will be continuous demand for “essential” workers in such sectors as medical research and health care across the board and in seasonal and perishable-crop agriculture, construction, and food production and preparation, in other sectors uncertainty about timely access to foreign workers due to concerns about political backlash and rising costs (e.g., linked to quarantine requirements or infection outbreaks) may incentivize some employers to invest instead in hiring and training resident workers.
Of course, government policy will need to play a large supporting role here if such efforts are to gain traction and bear fruit. The new economic reality—and the jobs and fiscal cliff that it has created—may also prompt employers and governments to address more politically sensitive but necessary aspects of this issue, including how to increase productivity in different sectors and options for investing in automation, as well as revisiting once more retirement age laws and pension benefits.
Finally, restarting and gearing up refugee resettlement and asylum operations will be uneven and take time—and the fate of “territorial asylum” in particular is deeply unclear. It is also unclear when the one-third or so of all countries around the globe that continue to close their borders to asylum seekers and most travel might be willing to roll back restrictions. And the virus’ soaring surges will inevitably lead to more border closures.
With the first phase of the crisis well behind us and an aggressive second phase already upon us, governments, businesses, and the public will need to move quickly to formulate and execute a strategy for climbing out of this economic abyss while managing the ongoing health risks. A number of very hard questions will require answers.
How can governments move to support those most vulnerable to the disease in their own countries—particularly the elderly and the immunocompromised, as well as the most socioeconomically vulnerable populations (which typically include minorities and many immigrant groups)—and avoid furthering their economic precarity? How far will governments go in continuing to subsidize wages and provide massive relief to businesses, large and small? What steps can the international community take to alleviate the massive health and socioeconomic harm that COVID-19 is wreaking to lower-income countries with much weaker health systems and institutions? Will the discipline that many governments and societies exhibited in containing the spread of the virus during its first phase be duplicated in safely reopening economies and managing subsequent surges of the virus, or will the “lockdown fatigue” that has set in across most countries jeopardize this? And finally, in these highly polarized times, how can we foster greater political and social solidarity and trust?