We need a more globalised response to pandemics for immigrant integration

By Tahseen Shams, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto


This blog is part of a series on tackling COVID-19 in developing countries. Visit the OECD dedicated page to access the OECD’s data, analysis and recommendations on the health, economic, financial and societal impacts of COVID-19 worldwide.


The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that what happens in a faraway land does not stop at its borders but can produce domino effects forceful enough to lock down the entire world. How have we as a globalised society responded to this moment with regards to immigrant integration?

Not well. Immigrants, long singled-out as disease carriers, are again being blamed for the world’s epidemic. Because the Coronavirus originated in China, xenophobia has now turned its gaze on those perceived as Asian immigrants. Pre-existing anti-Chinese racism, for instance, has spiked in the United States even though the virus that led to the outbreak in New York, which has the largest U.S. death toll, came from Europe. Anti-immigrant xenophobia has risen in general despite immigrants comprising the bulk of our essential workforce. Right-wing advocates, based on what could only be described as poorly disguised racism, are using the pandemic as evidence of the dangers of immigration. Their fearmongering taps into the public’s fears and suspicion towards “foreigners”—a label that never seems to detach itself from immigrants and their descendants. Social media, fake news, and political discourse are also helping to depict immigrants as foreigners who bring dangers from faraway lands into our country.

Governments, too, have responded in ways that systematically affect immigrants and non-citizens. Based on the state’s obligation to protect its citizens, governments’ knee-jerk reaction has been to close borders to immigrants—even though citizens are equally likely to be virus-carriers as non-citizens. Moreover, travel restrictions often do more harm than good. Bans prevent doctors, medical help and equipment from reaching affected areas; they cause infected people to pre-emptively flee; and they delay outbreaks very modestly.

And yet, as I have argued, a crucial point that can dismantle fears about immigrants being active vectors is consistently overlooked. While human mobility does help turn regional human-to-human transmission into global outbreaks, immigrants and refugees are static compared to seasonal travelers. Unlike tourists and business travelers, who travel back and forth across borders on a temporary but regular basis, immigrants are settled in their adopted countries fairly permanently. Moreover, their often-limited resources prohibit frequent travel.

This once-in-a-lifetime epidemiological crisis is not divorced from other kinds of social unrest. The world is now witnessing massive protests against racism echo from the United States to countries as far-flung as Canada, France, Great Britain, India, and Ethiopia. This is because COVID-19 has brought societal tensions into sharp relief. The global disparity between rich and poor nations; the widening gap between classes even in the world’s richest, most powerful countries; the empowerment of populism and its rejection of the political establishment are but some examples. These global and class disparities are now especially consequential with regard to the development and distribution of possible COVID-19 vaccines.

However, this moment is not new. As I expound in my book Here, There, and Elsewhere: The Making of Immigrant Identities in a Globalized World, we are experiencing the effects of what I call an “exogenous shock”—an unexpected event, such as a terror attack or global epidemic, that has originated from a foreign place outside a state but has still impacted the society within it by disrupting the larger international order. These moments in the aftermath of exogenous shocks are important. They reveal how immigrants are vectors of globalisation who both produce and experience the interconnectedness of societies. And they reveal where exactly the cleavages run between “us” and “them” in a society. These cleavages, amplified by the unrest of these moments, almost always produce xenophobic backlash against immigrants and their descendants.

For example, the 2015-2016 Zika epidemic, which had originated in South America, produced shockwaves in the international order. The U.S. back then not only restricted cross-border travel to and from where the outbreak originated, but also strongly advised travelers not to travel to a long list of other countries it had identified as places of risk—a list that included South Asian countries like Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan. These shockwaves also affected U.S. society. Americans broadly reacted to the epidemic with xenophobia and nativist backlash against immigrants. Many segments of the public blamed Latinos for its outbreak in the United States—regardless of which particular South American country the immigrants came from or whether they had arrived in the United States prior to the outbreak. The Ebola and SARS scares had unleashed similar backlash, but against immigrant groups from Africa and Asia respectively.

The U.S. society’s reaction to these exogenous shocks revealed the cleavages that run between immigrants and “natives”, and the ideological faultline between conservatives and liberals. The issue of immigration has long been a battlefront in nation-states around the world. Exogenous shocks such as global epidemics add more fuel to this debate as right-wing politicians and commentators use these events as further evidence of the dangers that come with including foreigners into the country. For instance, The Washington Times, a conservative news outlet, published an op-ed in 2016, at a time when the United States was tackling both the Zika and Ebola crises that drew parallels between Islamist terrorism, crimes, and global epidemics, attributing all three to the influx of immigrants and refugees into the United States.

So, what now? How can we move forward to ensure that we respond to immigrant issues more efficiently both now and when the next exogenous shock strikes? We need a more globalised way to address migration because as this pandemic has shown, what happens out “there,” affects us “here.” We need to ensure widespread testing and availability of personal protective equipment (PPE). If anything, the COVID-19 pandemic must serve as a wake-up call for how crucial access to universal healthcare is not just for citizens and those who are able to afford medical care but also noncitizens, migrants, and refugees.

Another challenge is how we can best divert financial resources and social support for the impending economic depression and sociopolitical unrest. While remittances sent by diasporas is a valuable financial resource, it cannot replace state- and global-level support. The pandemic and the subsequent xenophobic backlash have placed immigrants in a profoundly precarious position. Epidemiologically, they are forced to confront risk of exposure as essential workers; economically, they are losing their means of employment because of job lay-offs; legally, many are suddenly facing the possibility of being stripped of their work or student visas. Socially, as well, they are facing hostility from their host societies because of being perceived as disease-carriers. In the case of labour migrants forced to return to their developing home countries from the developed world, they are facing rejection even from their homelands, which are now much too burdened by the onslaught of rising COVID cases to deal with return migrants from COVID epicenters.

Migrants can be a resource and bridge for countries to respond to these problems in a globalised, collaborative way. Governments, for instance, can create opportunities for migrants to use their skills. But most importantly, the COVID-19 pandemic must be used as a moment for a paradigmatic shift regarding how countries manage exogenous shocks: they must begin viewing migrants as solutions to a global crisis, not the makers of it.