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Past the Virus - Migrations, Mobility and Pandemics: Return to Normalcy? 

Past the Virus - Migrations, Mobility and Pandemics: Return to Normalcy? 
 Bruno Tertrais
Senior Fellow - Geopolitics, International Relations and Demography

The Past the Virus series explores the various consequences of pandemics throughout history. After looking at how events like the Spanish Flu or the Black Plague have caused paradigm shifts, public policy transformations and economic upheavals, we zoom into the migratory effects of previous pandemics, and how they relate to our current reality. 

What can history teach us about the relationship between pandemics and migration? How will Covid-19 differ, or not, from previous pandemics in terms of its impacts on mobility? 

There is an obvious first lesson: there is always an action-reaction phenomenon involving the two. Migrations, and mobility in general, foster epidemics, which in turn call for restrictions on the freedom of movement. 

Well-known patterns

Through invasions, trade, wars and pilgrimages, the movement of people has always brought disease in faraway parts of the globe. The Huns brought the Antonine plague to Europe. The terrible Black Death of the 14th century probably originated in Central Asia, and was disseminated through the Silk Road. Colonization and the slave trade brought a number of diseases into the Americas and the Pacific islands, with a devastating death toll. During the early 19th century, cholera spread from northeast India to the rest of Asia, Russia and Turkey, then Europe. In 1831, it reached the United Kingdom and, from there, North America. The Spanish Flu was disseminated by the movement of troops during the First World War. 

Then of course came the backlash. Before modern times, restraining free movement was always the primary means of disease control. The 14th century plague introduced the preventive separation of potentially infected people and goods. The quarantine (initially a forty-day isolation of incoming passengers) was born in Dubrovnik - a major European port - in 1377. In the 18th century, a highly-developed cordon sanitaire was instituted in the middle of the Balkans, from the Adriatic Sea to the Carpathian Mountains. This reduced interaction with the Ottoman Empire. 

Lockdowns are also old. Temporary walls were built to isolate cities. A stay-at-home order was imposed in London during the 17th century plague (it made things worse because at the time, it was not known that the disease was transmitted by rats and fleas).

A common feature of epidemics is the scapegoating and discrimination against foreign migrants. 

Whereas cities traditionally protected citizens against war and pillage, it was rural areas that provided shelter against disease. For those who could afford it, a country house became a valuable commodity. They became the best way for some individuals to escape short-term epidemics: richer Europeans and Americans fled major cities.

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.

Also, even though xenophobia and scapegoating did take place, the scale and breadth of Covid-19 made it harder than in the past to blame a particular group of migrants or foreigners. This also happened during the Spanish Flu: even though it coincided with a major wave of immigration to the United States, since the disease struck individuals of all groups and classes throughout the country, no particular immigrant group was blamed.

The scale and breadth of Covid-19 made it harder than in the past to blame a particular group of foreigners. 

Disruptions caused by the pandemic may have reduced the overall number of international migrants by around 2 million globally by mid-2020, corresponding to a decrease of around 27 percent in the growth expected from July 2019 to June 2020. In Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, the number of first work permits fell by 46% during the first semester of 2020. Arrivals of new refugees and asylum-seekers went sharply down in most regions. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, there were about 1.5 million fewer refugees and asylum-seekers than would have been expected pre-Covid-19. The European Union (EU) as a whole registered a 33% year-on-year decrease in asylum applications and a 6-year low in irregular border crossings. Refugee resettlement registered a drastic plunge with just 34,400 refugees resettled, the lowest level in 20 years. 

Then again, such numbers do not represent a drastic evolution. There are still more than 100 million more migrants in the world than was the case twenty years ago (281 million in 2020, against 173 in 2000). The number of forcibly displaced persons has not been deeply affected: during 2020, numbers have continued to rise (for internally displaced persons), or have stayed flat (for refugees and asylum seekers). 

Normalcy on the (distant) horizon

It is now a relatively safe bet that the world will see a slow but steady return to large-scale movements of persons across the planet. 

It will be steady because the economic and cultural pressures for international travel are very strong. Already in 2020, several European countries made exceptions to their border rules for temporary migrant labor entry - because they have become so dependent on them (for agriculture or healthcare, for instance). Also, remittances have become a critical resource for developing countries - whereas such remittances were projected by the World Bank to see a $78 billion dip in 2020, around 14 percent of the total amount. Likewise for tourism, which matters enormously for the economies of many countries, including some developed ones. Not to mention the urge to travel again for many. The International Air Travel Association forecasts that by 2023, the number of passengers will be equal to that of 2019 - and that global travel will have suffered just a loss of 2 years of growth. 

Resumption of migration and mobility to pre-Covid-levels will be slow, though. At this point, it is too early to predict when most developing and emerging countries will be considered safe for normal business and leisure travel, and when citizens will be able to come and work in Covid-safe countries. But it would be reasonable to bet that it is a matter of years more than months. 



Copyright: Manolis Lagoutaris / AFP

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