What Impact Will Covid-19 Have On The Movement Of People?

As the Covid-19 virus spreads throughout the world, governments across the globe shut their borders or restricted travel to try and quell the spread. With various supply chain issues also emerging in key areas, such as with personal protective equipment, ventilators, and other medical equipment, there has been growing concern that the golden era of globalization might be coming to an end, as countries resort to a more insular, nationalist approach to post-covid life.

In a recent article, I argued that this would worsen the economic challenges faced in the wake of the pandemic, due to the strong and lasting contribution migrants make to the wealth and vitality of their host communities. Indeed so strong is the connection, that even undocumented migrants contribute far more to the local economy than they consume in public services.

As with so much at the moment, the pandemic is extenuating many of the trends seen before the crisis, and a paper from Harvard Business School at the start of 2020 made the case for easier migration policies to help rejuvenate an economy that many thought was sliding towards a recession. As that recession is now all but inevitable, those feelings apply even more.

Reduced travel

Are the fears around the long-term reduction in international mobility justified, however? New research from the University of Sydney suggests our worries might be unwarranted.

The researchers trawled back through history to observe the impact of a wide range of major events, from wars to civil unrest, pandemics to recessions, to try and determine whether these “black swan” type events resulted in long-term reductions in movement, or instead whether these events prompted an increase in mobility.

The trigger for the research was the Second World War, which resulted in the largest movement of people in Europe’s history, some of which was obviously forced, but much of which was not. Indeed, the authors note that millions of Europeans settled in Australia in the decades after 1945.

They also cite the Syrian conflict in 2015-16, which resulted in the displacement of over four million people, who fled to numerous countries around the world in the search for safe haven. Similarly, they highlight how the Ebola outbreak saw widespread relocation, on both a temporary and permanent basis.

“While many countries’ borders are now closed, making migration virtually impossible, a post-pandemic world might look very different,” the researchers explain. “Epidemics are examples of wider contagion phenomena which also include social segregation, “infodemics”—waves of misinformation, and social unrest.”

Risk avoidance

The research suggests that when we’re faced with either a threat or an opportunity, we tend to try and either seek an advantage, avoid risks, or indeed try and do both. In the post-Covid world, this might precipitate a movement of people towards countries regarded as somewhat safe havens from the disease, or that have at least appeared to manage things well, such as Germany and South Korea.

The authors accept that their work has been undertaken against a backdrop that has seen many governments call for restrictions on migration, at least during the immediate aftermath of the pandemic when countries will attempt to recover from the economic and health turmoil caused by the pandemic. Despite that, they believe that those affected by either of these, may nonetheless consider relocation as a viable, and even logical, step.

“We showed that large-scale collective behaviors, such as migration, can result from very small changes in human decision-making,” the researchers explain. “In other words, even if individuals re-assess their risks only slightly, their combined actions can bring a tipping point in terms of population resettlement.”

It’s perhaps fair to say that the Ebola outbreak, and the changes to migration that resulted from it, will pale in comparison to that from Covid-19, not least because there has scarcely been a country that has remained unaffected by the virus this year. As such, the researchers believe that both global and regional migration may actually be boosted by the virus.

Cross border cooperation

This promises to be significant in the support it can offer to international cooperation. It’s well known in the startup world, for instance, that migrants tend to cooperate, invest, and recruit more from their homeland, thus fostering greater collaboration between nations.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report at the start of the year reaffirmed their concern that global cooperation on the biggest issues facing mankind may be under threat, so maintaining migration will be crucial to ensuring that happens.

A sign of the potential that remains on the table comes via a recent study from the University of Eastern Finland, which explored cooperation in regions that span international borders.

The research used a combination of survey and statistical data to gauge the success of cross-border cooperation around the world. A particular focus was given to forms of innovation-related cooperation, such as in science and R&D. This was measured using metrics such as the number of co-patents and co-publications.

In the cross-border region of Cascadia, such cooperation is remarkably rare, with few scientific outputs emerging from collaboration between the U.S. and Canada. It’s a finding that somewhat surprised the researchers.

“The economic profiles of Seattle and Vancouver are very similar, and increasingly close collaboration between the two is encouraged. This should foster cross-border cooperation, but it is still very seldom that partners are sought from across the border,” they say.

Sadly, such a scenario is not confined to the border regions of North America, with similar findings emerging from European border areas.

“Although cross-border cooperation in the European Union and in its adjacent areas is supported by, e.g., the Interreg and ENI programmes, the outcomes have remained modest in terms of cooperation in science, research and product development,” the researchers continue. “For instance, patents filed as a result of cross-border cooperation are rare.”

For instance, the Öresund region connects Sweden and Denmark, and is often cited as a perfect example of international cooperation, but even this region produces relatively few innovation-based results, bar a few notable exceptions, such as in medicine.

The authors believe their work highlights the often yawning chasm between the rhetoric of cross-border cooperation spouted by policy makers, and the reality in terms of clear and concrete outcomes.

We’re in an era where the rhetoric of cooperation is beginning to wane. Hopefully the evidence from the past will hold true, and the movement of people that has so enriched the world over the last century will continue, even as the temptation grows to shut down borders and cut off the engines of growth.

Source: forbes.com
Published: 4 August 2020

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