Covid-19 and the Future of Global Mobility – Individual Merit Will Trump Nationality

In recent years we have grown accustomed to Asian passports climbing the ladder of global access — but not to Western passports tumbling down. The every-country-for-itself Covid-19 response has been particularly cruel to Americans, whose visa-free score has plummeted from 184 in January to fewer than 75 destinations when the current travel restrictions are considered. And while these include Canada and Mexico, America’s only two borders remained firmly closed regardless. Furthermore, the EU has steadfastly kept the US off its safe list. It is highly unlikely that the outcome of the US election in either direction will suddenly lift suspicions; only a vaccine or wealth can restore mobility for America’s international travelers.

The system will not return to what it was before: Nationality will not suffice to guarantee safe passage. Even for the holders of still-powerful passports such as Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, and EU member states, additional protocols will be required to regain relatively frictionless mobility. For example, to avoid onerous quarantines, individuals will have to certify their health immunity through vaccination certificates or digital immunity passports and other special registrations. There is a war for tourists and talent, but not at all costs.

The new global mobility hierarchy may be tied far more to individual merit than to nationality alone. There are two reasons for this. First, high unemployment has led to ‘employment nationalism’ by which governments are strongly pressuring firms to hire citizens over foreigners. At the same time, the growing trend towards rigorous highly-skilled migrant programs has reached many countries, each requiring significant checks on an individual’s financial, criminal, and professional history irrespective of nationality. To some this may seem to be an onerous new development, but it levels the playing field for hard-working professionals from developing countries.

There is no question that these trends in combination have boosted the appeal of investment migration and citizenship programs, whether to digital nomads, those looking to acquire second passports, or those wishing to change nationality altogether. Even prior to the pandemic, Brexit had pushed British professionals to seek German, French, Spanish, and other EU nationalities based on lineage, or to pursue residency leading to citizenship in countries such as Portugal. Americans have availed themselves of similar options in countries ranging from Canada to Malta. Recent estimates suggest that interest in investment migration programs has jumped five-fold from 2019 through mid-2020. The new mobility hierarchy will therefore certainly look completely different post Covid.

Our collective intuition suggests that those who remain mobile and who can afford to travel for leisure may take fewer holidays of longer duration, meaning that destinations that allow for remote work while also offering cultural stimulation or exhilarating natural surroundings will be well positioned. Media coverage has already sensationalized the open-ended residence offerings of island nations from Bermuda to Fiji. In the medium term, however, connected hubs offering hassle-free entrepreneur visas and permanent residence such as Singapore, or long-term residence such as Thailand and the UAE, are likely to see far more uptake. ‘Every country for itself’ is rapidly becoming ‘every person for themself’.

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