The Coronavirus Is Killing Westerners. Immigrants Are Saving Them.

Foreign-born doctors and entrepreneurs are at the forefront of fighting the pandemic and resuscitating economies, but nativist politicians still want to keep them out.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks to nurses as he visits Watford General Hospital on Oct. 7, 2019 in Watford, England.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks to nurses as he visits Watford General Hospital on Oct. 7, 2019 in Watford, England. Peter Summers-WPA Pool/Getty Images

Early results suggest that the COVID-19 vaccine developed by BioNTech and Pfizer is more than 90 percent effective. If it also proves safe and regulators approve it soon, it could save many lives, allow people to resume a normal life, and give struggling economies a shot in the arm. It is hard to think of any other invention that could provide such a huge immediate boost—and the world has Turkish immigrants to Germany to thank for it.

Ugur Sahin, the co-founder and chief executive of BioNTech, a German biotech start-up, arrived in Germany as a child. He is the son of an auto worker who came to Germany as part of its postwar guest worker program. BioNTech’s chief medical officer, Ozlem Tureci, who is Sahin’s wife, is the daughter of a Turkish doctor who also moved to Germany. Both went on to become scientists. Their start-up, which had previously focused on developing innovative cancer treatments, is now set to be the first to use the novel messenger RNA technology to develop a vaccine. Moreover, Moderna, the U.S. biotech company whose vaccine also looks promising, was co-founded by a group that includes two immigrants—Canadian biologist Derrick Rossi and Lebanese-born scientist and investor Noubar Afeyan—and its CEO is French.

The achievements of Sahin and Tureci—which were celebrated even by outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump, who rarely has anything good to say about immigrants, let alone Muslim ones—have exposed the fallacy of anti-immigrant discourse in Europe and North America. While many anti-immigration figures do look more favorably on highly skilled migrants than other foreigners, Sahin could hardly have been selected by the skills-based immigration policies that many governments in rich countries increasingly favor. Indeed, if he hadn’t moved to Germany as a child, the world might never have realized what it had missed out on.

For all Sahin’s individual brilliance, he is unlikely to have achieved as much had he not moved to Germany, benefited from an excellent scientific education, and seized the greater research and business opportunities available there.

In the midst of a coronavirus pandemic in which international mobility has been restricted for public health reasons and many locals are unable to work, there is a growing chorus of those who argue that immigration is no longer needed. Trump, in particular, has slashed the number of work visas that the United States offers, ostensibly on economic grounds. But the huge contribution of Sahin and Tureci is just one powerful example of why such policies are misconceived and harmful, as I explain in my new book, Them and Us. What might the people being denied entry now go on to achieve if they were admitted?

The businesses started by immigrant entrepreneurs have played a key role in sustaining economies and societies this year, at a time when many people are working from home and many more are often confined to it. Zoom, the videoconferencing platform that has taken the world by storm, was founded by Eric Yuan, a Chinese immigrant to the United States. DoorDash, America’s most popular meal delivery app, was also started by a Chinese American immigrant, Tony Xu. A British equivalent, Deliveroo, was co-founded by William Shu, a Taiwanese American entrepreneur. Babylon Health, a British start-up that enables doctors to provide patients with online consultations, was started by Ali Parsa, who was born in Iran.

More broadly, the pandemic has accelerated the adoption of digital technologies by both businesses and households. Often the companies that supply those technological solutions have foreign-born founders. Nearly half of the tech start-ups in Silicon Valley—including Google and Tesla—were co-founded by immigrants. So, too, were nine of Britain’s 14 unicorns—as start-ups valued at $1 billion or more are known—including Babylon Health. And across the tech sector, foreign workers also make a huge contribution. Remarkably, 58 percent of U.S. residents with a doctoral degree in computer science were born abroad, and 6 in 10 highly skilled technology workers in Silicon Valley are immigrants. Toronto’s tech hub and London’s financial technology cluster are likewise fueled by foreign talent.

Immigrants also disproportionately provide medical care. More than half of Australia’s doctors are foreign-born, as are 38 percent of doctors in U.K. hospitals and nearly 30 percent of physicians in the United States. Many nurses are immigrants, too. Those foreign-born nurses include “Jenny from New Zealand” and “Luis from Portugal,” whom British Prime Minister Boris Johnson thanked for helping to save his life when he was hospitalized with the coronavirus in April. And senior citizens in care homes are increasingly looked after by foreign care workers. In Italy, immigrants account for more than half of the social care workforce.

It’s not just immigrant entrepreneurs and skilled migrants who are helping societies to cope with the coronavirus crisis. So, too, are the often low-paid immigrant workers who perform essential physical tasks that many previously dismissed as “unskilled”—the so-called key workers who pick and pack food, stack supermarket shelves, provide home deliveries, and toil long hours in Amazon warehouses. They are the people who clean hospitals and public transport systems.

After decades in which ever more people have been on the move around the world, this year immigration has ground to a halt, while many migrants have gone home. But with the help of vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and others, economies are likely to bounce back in 2021 and with them the demand for migration. The big question is whether and when governments will allow people to move—and, if so, whom.

Curbs are often easier to impose than to lift. Many governments may drag their feet in scrapping restrictions imposed on public health grounds even after the pandemic has passed. But within the European Union, where people can circulate freely across all 27 member states, migration flows are likely to bounce back quickly once local lockdowns are lifted.

Having left the EU in January, the United Kingdom is ending the free movement rights of EU citizens at the end of this year and thereby also denying British citizens the much greater freedom to move to anywhere in the EU. Shamefully and ironically, Britain’s new skills-biased immigration policy will deny entry to many foreign nurses, care workers, and other low-paid key workers for whom U.K. government ministers took to the streets to clap their appreciation each week during the first lockdown. That will exacerbate the shortage of medical staff and care workers, harming Britons’ health and well-being.

In recent years, Trump has set a terrible example for the entire world with his anti-immigrant vitriol—such as slandering Mexicans as “murderers” and “rapists”—and cruel policies, including banning travel from several mostly Muslim countries, slashing refugee numbers, and separating children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexican border and holding them like animals in cages. But beyond the moral outrages of these policies, his curbs on temporary work visas this year, at a time when the U.S. tech sector is desperately short of talent, are doing immediate economic harm. Canada is already capitalizing by laying out the red carpet for foreign tech workers.

Fortunately, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden is promising to repair the damage. While comprehensive immigration reform is unlikely to be possible if Republicans retain control of the Senate, Biden has pledged to rescind Trump’s many executive orders on immigration, thereby ending child detention, lifting the Muslim ban, restoring the refugee quota, and allowing in more skilled temporary workers.

For the first time in four years, the U.S. government will soon be setting a positive example on immigration—and reaping the economic benefits. In contrast, if countries such as the U.K. keep foreigners out, they will stunt their post-coronavirus recovery.

Philippe Legrain is the founder of OPEN, an international think tank on openness issues, and a senior visiting fellow at the London School of Economics' European Institute. Previously economic advisor to the president of the European Commission from 2011 to 2014, he is the author of five critically acclaimed books, most recently Them and Us: How Immigrants and Locals Can Thrive Together. Twitter: @plegrain