A common feature of epidemics is the scapegoating and discrimination against foreign migrants. Because of its diverse immigration history, the United States provides a good example. In the 1800s, Irish immigrants were blamed for bringing cholera, Italian immigrants for bringing polio, and Jews for bringing tuberculosis. During the plague of the 1890s, migrant workers were the subject of intensive scrutiny in the United States. Chinese immigrants were confined to their Chinatown enclave, partly due to nativist fears of infectious diseases such as smallpox and bubonic plague. In 1924, a pneumonia outbreak resulted in the quarantining of Mexican American immigrants. During the Asian influenza of 1957-58, migrant workers were the subject of intensive scrutiny, and their movements posed challenges to health authorities. In the 1980s, Haitians were considered a high-risk group for HIV transmission, and as a result, Haitian refugees were subjected to more stringent immigration controls. More recently, Latin Americans were blamed for Zika and Africans for Ebola. Epidemics and pandemics have almost always been used as opportunities for anti-immigration members of the US Congress to impose restrictions on new entries (such as a literacy requirement).
An overarching theme of post-pandemics periods is that patterns generally go back to normal after a while. Of course, pandemics in the distant past sometimes prompted large-scale migrations. The plague prompted the migration of Slavs to new areas or the spread of Islam to safer semi-desert regions, for instance. But these were times when humanity was much less sedentary than is the case today and when healthcare was scarcely available. The same goes for domestic mobility: after pandemics, people went back to cities. There is often an impact on the housing market, but evidence suggests that it is temporary.
What’s different with Covid-19
Covid-19 has much in common with previous major pandemics when it comes to migration and mobility - but only to a certain extent.
The initial dissemination path of SARS-CoV-2 followed part of the modern Silk Road: from China to Northern Italy, for instance. But in terms of speed and reach, as well as the numbers of those affected, Covid-19 reflects the contemporary era. Air travel and global tourism, for instance, were in their infancy a century ago at the time of the Spanish Flu.
Then again, borders are better controlled today than they were in the early 20th century. Once entry and/or exit were legally restricted, States were better able to enforce such controls when and where they chose to do so.
Modern states were also able to manage the movement of their citizens on a large scale. Immediately after its national lockdown announcement, India witnessed its second largest mass movement of people since its independence in 1947. By May 2020, 7.5 million people had left crowded urban centers for rural homes. Control of internal mobility was also easier - in particular for authoritarian governments. China was able to more effectively impose containment measures this time, than when Beijing faced the Manchurian Flu a century ago.
The very high number of migrant workers abroad is also a major feature of Covid-19. In the initial weeks of the pandemic, some three million workers were stranded in a foreign country, mostly in Asia and the Middle East. This number grew rapidly as governments imposed harsher measures. At the peak of the pandemic in 2020, over 160 countries had closed their borders, with 99 States making no exception for people seeking protection. However, another difference with the past is that many States assisted their citizens with repatriation. By June 2021, India had repatriated more than 6 million stranded Indians from all over the globe; in April 2020, the Ukrainian government announced that 2 million Ukrainians had returned from abroad; and estimates suggest that 1 million people have and will return to Egypt.