FP Guide

The Coronavirus Threatens Some More Than Others

Refugees, migrant laborers, and the global poor are especially susceptible to the pandemic. There’s little time to bridge the gap between haves and have-nots.

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Jon Benedict illustration for Foreign Policy/Getty Images
EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re making some of our coronavirus pandemic coverage free for nonsubscribers. You can read those articles here. You can also listen to our weekly coronavirus podcast, Don’t Touch Your Face, and subscribe to our newsletters here.
EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re making some of our coronavirus pandemic coverage free for nonsubscribers. You can read those articles here. You can also listen to our weekly coronavirus podcast, Don’t Touch Your Face, and subscribe to our newsletters here.

There are now more than 1.9 million confirmed cases of the coronavirus worldwide, and some 121,000 people have died from the disease that it causes, COVID-19. After weeks of mass closures and lockdowns, global economic activity is collapsing, with the fallout still difficult to comprehend. The pandemic shows just how communities around the world can be connected through a shared experience—in this case, one of suffering.

But it is already clear that the coronavirus threatens some more than others: refugees, migrant laborers, those with poor access to health care or basic sanitation, or those who can’t afford to miss work. For example, preliminary data released by local governments in the United States shows that the coronavirus is disproportionately affecting black Americans, reflecting long-standing inequalities. The pandemic also throws into sharp relief global disparities. The United Nations has warned that countries with existing humanitarian crises will be hit the hardest, as Foreign Policy’s Colum Lynch and Robbie Gramer reported on March 23.

From prisoners in overcrowded systems to migrant workers far from home, we’ve gathered some of our best articles from recent weeks about the populations around the world that are likely to suffer disproportionately from the virus and its societal effects—and what might be done to safeguard their health.

“Prisons are a humanitarian crisis in the making,” Vera Mironova wrote on April 1. Many democratic countries, such as the United States, France, and Germany, have released nonviolent prisoners or deferred sentences to reduce overcrowding and coronavirus exposure. But prisoners in nondemocratic countries face different responses, from canceled amnesties to rationing medical supplies or food. Such conditions aren’t sustainable: Prisoners in Colombia, Chad, and Brazil have already rioted or escaped as the crisis goes on.

“There is only one way for nondemocratic countries to ensure some level of prison system stability in these unstable times,” Mironova writes. “They need to follow the advice of human rights organizations: free some inmates, improve medical treatment, and make lockdown as bearable as possible for prisoners.”

There are more than 25 million refugees in camps around the world, a population identified by U.N. officials as one of the most vulnerable to a second phase of the coronavirus as it spreads through crowded quarters—and as aid budgets shrink amid the economic crisis. But many countries that host refugees do not have pandemic plans that explicitly address their specific needs—and they should, as Sanjana Ravi wrote on March 27.

The majority of refugees live in low- or middle-income countries, where there are higher rates of malnutrition and diseases that weaken the immune system. They also face barriers to access. “Nationalism, isolationism, and xenophobia—forces that further marginalize refugees and make health care harder to access—are antithetical to effective pandemic response,” she writes. “If refugees are afraid or unable to seek medical care, it will be impossible to halt the spread of coronavirus.”

On March 30, Ivan Flores reported from a border camp in Matamoros, Mexico, that houses around 2,500 asylum-seekers and is underprepared for a coronavirus outbreak. “In the tightly packed Matamoros camp, social distancing is impossible, and high-level health care is inaccessible,” Flores writes. On the Don’t Touch Your Face podcast, Sam Bishop, a project coordinator for a humanitarian organization working at the Matamoros camp, told Foreign Policy’s Amy Mackinnon: “If we get an outbreak here … there’s going to be no way to effectively quarantine these people for most of the camp.”

The asylum-seekers are also worried that the pandemic will slow down their cases in the United States if the border closes, as Flores reports. They are stuck in Mexico as part of the Migrant Protection Protocols, which require U.S. asylum-seekers to remain on the other side of the border as their cases are processed—a situation made more precarious by the coronavirus.

Then there are the residents of places accustomed to political lockdowns who now face resource constraints that put them at greater risk amid the pandemic. India-administered Kashmir is still under a partial internet shutdown, limiting access to information about the coronavirus in a region with a shortage of ventilators and doctors, as Muddasir Ali reported from Srinagar on April 13. Jammu and Kashmir has 278 confirmed cases so far. “The entire world is united in the fight against this disease, sharing experiences and information online, but we have been isolated thanks to the continued curbs on the internet,” one doctor told him.

A significant outbreak would also compound the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip, which has reported 13 cases. Israel wields decisive power over the blockaded territory, and Gaza lacks the health care infrastructure to respond to the pandemic on its own, as Joshua Mitnick reported on March 26. “Already, thousands of patients from Gaza get special permission to cross the border to receive treatment for various maladies in Israeli hospitals,” he writes. “A coronavirus outbreak in Israel could likely shut that passage.”

Finally, there are those who are disproportionately affected by the societal and economic effects of coronavirus lockdowns and containment measures. On March 27, the journalist Harriet Williamson wrote that self-isolation endangers those already suffering from domestic violence in particular. In China, she notes, reports of domestic violence surged after quarantine measures were enacted in January. “If people are forced to self-isolate, they are at risk of being trapped in abusive and coercive situations, with less opportunity to access vital services,” Williamson writes.

The last month has also revealed that for many, “social distancing is a curious privilege,” as Rana Ayyub put it on March 28. Though India has been under a nationwide lockdown since March 24, migrant wage laborers in big cities are still going to work because they can’t afford to miss a day’s pay. “A country that is already grappling with its worst unemployment rate in decades and a rising and divisive nationalism now must deal with a pandemic that will strike a major blow to its economy—especially for its so-called informal workers who have no health care, benefits, or safety nets to fall back on,” she writes.

Farther from home, migrant workers in Qatar are still toiling on stadium and infrastructure construction projects ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The laborers, many of whom come from across South Asia, are highly vulnerable, Sophie Cousins wrote on April 8. They face labor exploitation, live in close quarters, and lack access to health care and sanitation—conditions that already lead to sudden and unexplained deaths. “As the virus continues to spread, it is vital that Qatari authorities ensure that all migrant workers have not only access to testing but also appropriate medical treatment,” Cousins writes. “If not, there can be little doubt that cases will explode among migrant workers.”

In Kenya, informal workers make up 83.6 percent of the workforce—a trend that tracks across the African continent. Many of the most vulnerable among them are women, as Louise Donovan and April Zhu wrote on April 10. Social distancing policies and lockdowns intended to protect people from the coronavirus mean that domestic workers, cleaners, and beauticians can’t earn their wages and provide for their families. “The measures are further highlighting the gulf between the haves and have-nots,” they write.

Audrey Wilson is an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @audreybwilson

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