October 2020, Volume 26, Number 4
Global: Covid, Migration
Most governments reacted to Covid-19 by closing their borders to non-essential travel in a bid to slow the spread of the virus. Proponents of restricting travel to slow the spread of the virus used the metaphor of speed limits on highways, where slower speeds save lives. Critics used the metaphor of air speeds, where slower planes do not mean fewer fatalities.
After the second wave of Covid-19 cases in summer 2020, critics of restrictions on labor migration offered a range of objections, from the need for migrants to fill essential jobs that create or preserve better jobs for local workers to warning that governments that closed their borders to “necessary” labor migration would simply increase unauthorized migration. Migrant advocates argued for inclusive policies toward migrant workers so that they do not work while sick and spread the virus.
The World Health Organization generally urges countries to keep their borders open to travelers during pandemics, a policy based on a plague outbreak in Surat, India in 1994 that prompted countries to halt flights and trade and cost India an estimated $3 billion despite only 50 deaths. WHO was sympathetic to India’s complaint that it was punished economically for reporting the plague, prompting a reassessment when SARS erupted in 2004.
The WHO in 2005 recommended that countries not close their borders to travel and trade in pandemics. The failure to close ski resorts in Ischgl, Austria after a Covid outbreak in March 2020 was blamed for helping to spread covid around the rich world.
Pre-Covid modeling suggested that a pandemic may kill over 70 million people worldwide and reduce GDP by five percent. After six months, the death toll appears to be far lower, but GDP is likely to shrink by more than five percent. China’s lockdown of Wuhan in January 2020 was considered to be impossible in democracies, but most nonetheless implemented lockdowns as Covid spread.
The International Transport Workers’ Federation reported that a fourth of the world’s 1.2 million seafarers were stranded on their ships in summer 2020 due to border closures that prevented them from flying home and from being replaced on the world’s cargo and tanker ships. Seafarer contracts can be for a maximum 11 months, but workers whose contracts expired since lockdowns began in March 2020 often had their contracts extended because they could not return home and be replaced.
Covid-19 closed schools in many countries, reducing the access of poor children to meals provided at school. Many poor children were pushed into the workforce to supplement the reduced incomes of their parents. Tens of millions of children who are not in school may work in 2020, backtracking on progress aimed at keeping children in school to break the cycle of poverty.
India closed all elementary and middle schools, idling 200 million children. The minimum age for work in India is 14, but there was little enforcement in 2020 due to covid, worrying those who say that once children go to work, many will not return to school. Covid surged in rural India, where many residents must continue working to earn enough to eat.
Migration. The UN estimated 272 million international migrants in 2019, meaning that 3.5 percent of the world’s people were outside their country of birth a year or more. Two-thirds of the world’s international migrants were in 20 countries led by the US (51 million) and followed by Germany and Saudi Arabia (13 million each).
A third of international migrants, 18 million, were from India, followed by Mexico, 12 million, and China, 11 million.
Gallup World Polls suggest that a billion more people want to emigrate, including over half of the people in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Haiti and Albania. The most populous country with high emigration pressure is Nigeria, where almost half of the 200 million Nigerians said they want to emigrate.
Migrants sent $554 billion to developing countries in 2019. The World Bank in April 2020 predicted that remittances to developing countries would decline 20 percent to $443 billion in 2020 due to Covid-19 shutdowns that displaced migrants and reduced international labor migration.
However, during the first six months of the pandemic, remittances to many countries rose. Mexico received more remittances in summer 2020 than a year earlier, as did Guatemala. Latin America received over $100 billion in remittances in 2019, most from the US, and may receive a similar amount in 2020.
Three Ds. The covid pandemic accelerated changes already underway, including the rise of China, low interest rates, and more rapid digitalization. Meanwhile, there may be a retreat from globalization to ensure that supply chains are less vulnerable, and high levels of government debt may restrict what governments can do to counter future recessions.
China’s more rapid recovery from the pandemic is likely to increase tensions with the US, moving from disputes over the US trade deficit with China to concerns about Chinese influence over the digital infrastructure of other countries. The digitalization that permitted remote work may create a global labor market in white-collar jobs, which would put downward pressure on the wages of workers who were spared much of the fallout from trade in goods that affected blue-collar workers.
Rising debts in developing countries may lead to a repeat of the lost decade in Latin America in the 1980s, when there was no economic growth. Zambia’s government debt exceeds its GDP due to borrowing from private creditors and China when copper prices were high. The prices of copper and other commodities have fallen, so Zambia will devote a third of its government revenue to foreign creditors in 2020 unless there is debt relief.
In the early 2000s, industrial countries forgave the debt of Heavily Indebted Poor Countries, allowing governments in Africa and elsewhere to spend more on education and health. HIPC proved to be a short-term fix. After 2010, many HIPC governments began to borrow from private investors and China, leading to the 2020 debt crisis.
Ten of Africa’s 54 countries are holding national elections in fall-winter 2020, and leaders in nine took steps such as amending constitutions to evade term, age, and other limits and continue to be eligible for office. Rulers and ruling parties want to stay in power to keep their jobs and avoid the scrutiny of their actions that may come with a change of government.
The UN’s World Food Program, which won the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize, predicted that the global recession linked to Covid will make 265 million more people food insecure in 2020 as informal jobs disappear in Africa and South Asia. Food prices are rising in many African countries because of border checks and tests of drivers, who must often wait days for test results.