by Chitra, Aditya and the IMN Team
Before we delve into the complex relationship between migration and disease, we would like to preface this edition of the Redux by pointing to some important resources for battling the current pandemic. These are the WHO guidelines for public behaviour in the midst of this crisis and the organisation urges everybody to maintain consistent hand hygiene and social distancing to the extent possible.
That said, in this edition, we explore a very important facet of this current crisis that has not seen as much critical attention as it should. How do existing patterns of migration influence the spread of disease? Does migration hold any insights for our understanding of SARS-CoV-2? And what does this mean for the future of international mobility?
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The past few months have seen a global effort to halt the spread of the highly infectious SARS-CoV-2 (COVID 19 disease), with its epicenter in the city of Wuhan in Hubei province, China. The first case, which was reported in November 2019, soon snowballed into a pandemic affecting 159 countries. The likely mortality rate for the disease currently stands at 3.4%, according to WHO estimates. Latest estimates by the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Centre put the total number of cases at 339,035, with Italy at 59,138, USA at 35,211, and Spain at 28,768. India is currently at 396.
At the same time, fears prevail of a worldwide economic recession in the wake of the virus. India, where more than 80% of the workforce is informal, has announced an Economic Task Force to tackle the economic fallout of this pandemic. At the time of writing of this newsletter, 75 major districts across the country including those constituting Kolkata, Mumbai, and Delhi have gone into lockdown for a period of 4–8 days.
Internal and International Migration Patterns in Wuhan
China has the largest network of internal migrants, with most movements exhibiting the urban-to rural trajectory. Internal migrant integration in China has been a slow, cumbersome process with multiple restrictions. The registration of migrants (hukou system) — akin to an internal passport system which divides the population into “local” and “outside”, and “rural and urban”, acts as a classification system to control mobility. This renders a large number of internal migrants from rural areas ineligible for state benefits in the urban areas as social protections across regions are different.
Additionally, according to the World Migration Report 2020, there are close to half a million international students at higher education institutes in China in 2018. Wuhan, a hub for several universities replete with English-language programmes, hosts the largest student population in China, mainly from Pakistan, Somalia, Uganda, Bangladesh, and India.
Wuhan had become a popular destination for students from the rest of India, especially Kerala, for its high- quality and affordable medical courses — explaining the presence of Indian students in Hubei’s capital.
The endangering of corridors due to an epidemic has highlighted patterns of migration(s) between various countries.
CHINA AND ITALY
A 2012 study shows that China and Italy have shared a migratory history, with the first wave of migrants from coastal provinces of China (Fujian, Guangdong, Hainan, and Zhejiang) moving to Italy in the 1920s as peddlers, and expanding their activities to small businesses by the 1970s. In the same study, it was found that though permanent residency has been one of the most important driving factors for Chinese people to migrate to Italy, the opportunities for self-employed entrepreneurs in Italy were vast, owing to unexplored niches, which the Chinese migrants sought to explore.
This ultimately resulted in the Italian-Chinese Treaty of 1985, giving a further impetus to this cooperation. Currently, the Chinese diaspora is concentrated in the cities of Rome and Milan — the northern and central regions of Italy, where a significant Chinese population exists.
WHAT ABOUT INDIA’S EMIGRANTS?
India is the world’s most important source country (17.5 million emigrants, worldwide, as per the World Migration Report 2020). Since the start of the outbreak, India has evacuated nationals from China, Singapore, Italy, and is planning further evacuations from Italy and Iran. As of 9th March, 2020, India had evacuated 890 individuals, comprising 842 Indian nationals and citizens of other countries including Bangladesh, Myanmar, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Madagascar, as per an official governmental press release.
WORLDWIDE MIGRATION CORRIDORS
China and Italy form just one corridor in the multitudes of corridors interspersed across continents and countries, some of which also highlight colonial histories and post-colonial realities.
The World Migration Report 2020 shows that the largest migration corridor in Africa is between Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia to France — all of which had been colonies of the latter. Political turmoil in the former colonies post-independence led many to migrate to France. With the SARS-CoV-2 infection largely being transported from the Global North to the South recently, several more corridors (tourist, business, cultural) will likely be affected.
A significant number of Egyptian nationals also exist as labour migrants in Arab states (74%), especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates working in both skilled and unskilled jobs. While Egypt allows its nationals to return to their country as Saudi Arabia enforces a travel ban, the Philippines government has left its own nationals stranded in China, Macao, and Hong Kong with a two-way travel ban, leaving thousands of workers stranded.
Another busy corridor is Mexico-USA, which the current USA administration has decided to shut down in the face of the pandemic, including mobility to asylum-seekers.
With many countries shutting down their borders for the foreseeable future, what happens to international migration, labour movements, student mobility, and family reunion in the wake of SARS-CoV-2?
Italy and Greece have temporarily suspended all integration services for all migrants and asylum-seekers. The UNHCR will suspend resettlement because of recent restrictions imposed by different European nations, especially Greece, which is a crucial transit point for those seeking shelter in Germany.
The move specifically affects unaccompanied minors, who exist outside the purview of healthcare systems of most nations. The dismal living conditions under which refugees reside, distanced from the healthcare system also means that any outbreak will affect the already vulnerable the most, since “contact tracing” can become a futile exercise given the cramped housing facilities.
The role of migration in propagation of disease depends on the stage of the epidemic, the prevalence of the disease in an area, and the patterns of movements linking origins and destinations. In a study published by the United States’ National Centre for Biotechnology Information, the stability by migrant status over time and over a range of settings for both infectious diseases and non-communicable diseases is suggestive of a general healthcare deficit for migrants. Structural issues such as poor access to healthcare at destinations, employment status, stress experienced as a result of relocation, or behavioral factors associated with migration explains the mortality risk for migrants.
There has been an increase in the number of coronavirus-related crimes in the world, with cases of assault surging against people of Asian descent or Asian nationals, associating the population with coronavirus. Migrants from the north eastern parts of India have also been at the receiving end of racist comments.
COVID-19 is a disease carried by human beings, and human beings are constantly mobile. It is during crisis periods such as these that the response capacities of a given nation can be evaluated, as well as its willingness to facilitate mobility once more when the situation returns to normal.
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