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Coronavirus and migration: the impact of a global health crisis

The Covid-19 pandemic has had an impact, on healthcare and at a social level, that has been different depending on social class, economic status, profession, gender, countries, and geographical territories. Immigrants have been among the first to suffer because of their working conditions, legal status or housing issues. Even now, during the vaccination campaign, inequalities on a global scale are evident. 

The Special Issue The Coronavirus Crisis and Migration in the Two Homelands journal (Scopus indexed) features guest editors Francesco Della Puppa e Fabio Perocco  of the Department of Philosophy and Cultural Heritage. It is one of the first international research projects that analyse on a global scale the consequences of the pandemic on the lives of immigrants, asylum seekers and migrants, in terms of healthcare conditions, working conditions, administrative and housing conditions. 

The authors analyse the situation in various countries, including India, Bangladesh, Japan, Greece, North Macedonia, Italy, the USA, and Brazil. 

Professor Fabio Perocco, professor of Sociology and editor of the journal, explains how a pre-existing situation that was already characterised by a long economic and social crisis, a critical environmental crisis, and crises involving gender and racial issues, culminated in a massive global health crisis. According to Perocco, “If you consider this ‘crisis of crises’, it is not excessive to refer to our society as a ‘society of structural crisis’.” 

Tell us about the context of the crisis that characterised 2020/2021

Even though I do not wish this to sound catastrophic, I wil say that the last two years have been characterised by the combination of three crises, each one slightly different depending on national and local contexts. The first one is a challenging economic and social crisis. The second one is a deep ecological crisis. The third one is a tragic healthcare crisis, to which I would also add the crisis of gender relationships and a racial crisis (just consider the Black Lives Movement).

The long economic and social crisis and the serious environmental issues pre-existed the pandemic: they have now merged with the healthcare crisis in a massive global crisis. Considering this “crisis of crises”, we can refer to our society as a “society of structural crisis”.   

Professor, what are the traits of this Coronavirus crisis? 

This crisis has deep environmental and social roots, and it is characterised by many factors. Firstly, it is a symptom of the current state of the environment and of the relationship between humans and the environment, and capitalism and the environment. It is also a touchstone, a mirror that exposes the structural problems of contemporary societies. It is a metaphor of the epochal crisis of today’s society.  

Secondly, the Coronavirus crisis has been a formidable social accelerator, a powerful catalyst for social processes that existed before the pandemic. Working relationships have become more individualised and atomised, in-work poverty has increased, and so has social polarisation. The Covid-19 crisis has also boosted online commerce, food delivery services, the home enteratainment industry, the work-from-home approach and remote working. These phenomena existed before the pandemic but they were accelerated and improved. Consider distance learning, which has changed the very nature of teaching and learning: consider the way learning has been freeze-dried and turned into an on demand product. The year 2020 has been the “Year of the global pandemic” and the “Year of fear”, but also the “Year of the great acceleration”. 

Thirdly, the pandemic has given the market an opportunity to reorganise and to expand its range of action by penetrating even more deeply into all the areas of social life, such as free time and social interactions. Even though each crisis is specific, it is in crises and through crises that the market and the economic system reorganise themselves, and by doing so they reorganise the entire society. 

Finally, the pandemic is a social detonator: it has made contradictions, unease and social risks converge and become entangled. On the one hand, this can fuel social chaos and have negative outcomes; on the other hand, it can support positive processes that favour social justice, the environment, and well-being.  

What has the social impact of the pandemic been?

Studies in the Special Issue show that on a healthcare and social level, the virus and the Covid-19 crisis have affected social classes, economic sectors, jobs, genders, countries and territories in different ways. In addition to exacerbating the already-exisiting inequalities, the Covid-19 crisis has transformed and created new ones. Finally, the statement according to which Covid-19 is an “equaliser” is wrong, because there are various social factors at play, which determine a person’s chances of contracting the virus, disease prevention and cure, as well as the seriousness of Covid-19 and mortality rate.

During the first lockdown some categories of workers were exposed to the virus more than others, and for a longer period of time. They could not avoid going to work, they could not work from home or safely because they were “essential” workers. Some sections of the population were more affected by the spread of the virus than others, since they could not protect themselves adequately and could not maintain social distance, which required having a spacious home, a car, electronic devices, paid services, and so on. Even the likelihood of contracting the disease was not even. Covid-19 followed the pattern of pre-exisiting social stratification

As with other epidemics, the unequal distribution of morbidity and mortality was also the outcome of inequality in certain social areas such as healthcare, social stratification structures (work, income, education), and unequal social conditions. Ultimately, because an individual’s social class is closely related to the degree of his or her social health, it is also related to the possibility of suffering severe complications or of dying of Covid-19, as well as one’s vulnerability to the disease. 

In this instance, too, there was a syndemic or a pan-syndemic, which the literature defines as the interaction of endemic and epidemic conditions that are closely related to each other (such as HIV, tuberculosis, STDs, hepatitis, cirrhosis, infant mortality, drug abuse, suicide, homicide). These conditions are influenced and fuelled by a multitude of economic and social factors, resulting from the interaction between an infectious disease and non-transmissible diseases, which are unevenly distributed according to the social gradient. Covid-19 has severely affected the elderly, but also individuals suffering from chronic diseases or health conditions (diabetes, cardiovascular issues, tumours, immune system disorders), which are related to social determinants of health

Can you give us some examples of this differential impact?

In the USA there was a peculiar syndemic situation. In terms of social factors, researchers underline that racism has had an impact on the healthcare aspects of the virus and on the social consequences of the Coronavirus crisis: the African American population was hit particularly hard by the virus, to the extent that racism is considered a social and political determinant of health, and it is therefore a matter of public health. 

The general conditions of Arican American communities was the humus in which the Coronavirus syndemic developed; in fact, Covid-19 health issues were more serious in this community, along with Latinos and Native Americans. Racism is a structural element of US society and became an important factor in fuelling the disease and mortality among black people. Just as the social model of hypertension and diabetes, Covid-19 is related to a system of racial oppression. Basically, in this pandemic racism has replicated historical models of inquality. Black people are over-represented in essential jobs; they are more likely to suffer from diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and these situations of co-morbidity are at the root of the high number of deaths among black people. The inequality in terms of positivity to the virus, hospitalisation, co-morbidity, seriousness of Covid-19 and mortality is connected to the deep historical inequalities that became more acute with the 2008 crisis and that the pandemic has made even deeper. For example, unemployment and under-employment have affected black people, Latinos, recent immigrants, women, and young white people. If we examine the map of contagion and mortality in New York, you can notice that there is an overlap with black neighbourhoods or white neighbourhoods. Another example is Brazil, where racial inequality has inevitably affected health inequality.

What are the consequences of the pandemic on migration and migrants?

There are many reasons why migrants are vulnerable to Covid-19-related crises. Consider their working conditions: they often work in essential sectors and have manual and precarious jobs. Then consider their living conditions: they often live in small, overcrowded spaces). Migrants have experienced unemployment, under-employment, the worsening of their working conditions, and poverty. These issues were the result of other factors: in fact, migrants are highly employed in sectors that were particularly vulnerable to the pandemic, such as hotels, restaurants, and domestic work. Jobs in these sectors can be informal and irregular. Migrants tend to work in unqualified positions and in unstable administrative conditions, due to the link between work contracts and residence permits. The rights of migrants are often subordinated to their migration status. The majority of migrants has had to accept any working condition in order to safeguard their permit of stay or their job position. This has increased de-qualification of jobs and lowering of salaries. In a context in which uneployment and the tightening of migration policies are widespread, migrants have accepted less qualified jobs and lower incomes, as well as longer working hours and faster rhythms — all because they need to obtain or renew their permit of stay. In other sector there has been an increase in the exploitation of work, of discrimination on the workplace, and of virus outbreaks (for example in slaughterhouses, logistics hubs, food industries). 

With reference to asylum seekers, they have experienced serious health-related and social consequences due to their social frailty. Sometimes reception centres and refugee camps have not been able to ensure social distancing, hygene and public health. Centres are often overcrowded and infected people are not always transferred to other sites, so the virus can spread across the entire centre. Different and rather “improvised” measures have been adopted more than once to manage infections. 

In many areas of the world, people have lost their jobs or had to find irregular jobs. This has resulted in greater inactivity and monotony for people who live in reception centres, especially during lockdowns. At these times there has been a rise in overcrowding, in a sense of abandonment and of dejection. The uncertainty of their stay was added to this, because of the suspension of asylum requests and of permits of stay, as well as the weakening of their legal status due to the state of emergency, and the closing of borders and of humanitarian corridors, with the interruption of reception and integration services. 

For migrants, all of this has exacerbated a situation which had already been compromised and deteriorated by the hardships of migrating. Consider the terrible psychological and physical conditions related to the journey and to life in reception centres, as well as the anti-migrant climate that can be felt around the world. These factors had a negative impact on the exposure to the virus and on social integration, casting thousands of people into a state of limbo. In particular, this situation has affected both the people who have not obtained humanitarian aid or asylum, and the ones who are undocumented. 

Migrants were often the subjects of disapproval and stigmatisation. Reception centres and residents were even pointed at as plague-spreaders. The distorted public image of the asylum seeker who is an idler, a scrounger and an underdeveloped person, has also incorporated the image of the asylum seeker as a “health hazard”. This has had consequences in terms of social exclusion and racism

When it comes to migrants who are travelling, the pandemic and related restrictions have reduced migration movements and departures, but because the causes of migration have not changed — rather, they have worsened because of the pandemic — migrants have continued to travel, albeit with greater difficulty, issues, danger and costs.

The closing of borders, ports and legal channels, as well as the tightening of migration policies, and the health emergency situation, have worsened the conditions of migrants — both of those who were already travelling and of the ones who set off during the pandemic. As a result, people were blocked in the countries they were crossing, or at borders, with few means of survival and little access to services. Part of the migration movements slided into a blurry limbo, increasingly into the hands of traffickers and criminal organisations. All of this has increased risks and cases of abuse, rape and violence; it has made these men and women particularly vulnerable

Would you like to comment on vaccines?

In addition to vaccine inequality between the North and South of the world, the first studies are showing that vaccine inequality is affecting immigrants — especially the most precarious ones. This is an aspect that needs to be managed quickly and which needs to prove that the discourse on inequality is more than words. 

Author: Fabio Perocco / Editor: Federica Scotellaro / Translator: Joangela Ceccon