Environmental Health: A New Priority for Post–Covid-19 Mobility?

Covid-19 put a pause on a world that at the beginning of 2020 was more globally mobile than ever. As people begin to move again, we may see a changing of priorities towards health and environmental concerns that could influence long-term travel freedom and global mobility trends in a post–Covid-19 world.

As the global economy begins to reopen and travel restrictions ease, we can expect travelers to place health policies of their destination countries higher up on their agendas. Not only will the immediate coronavirus precautionary measures be important, but broader environmental health considerations such as air pollution, food safety, and biosecurity, may become more central in influencing where people seek to move to.

Covid-19 has served as a stark reminder of the interplay between the environment and health. The pandemic is considered to have emerged from ‘wet’ food markets in Wuhan, China, bringing to the fore food safety and biosecurity concerns. The myriad impacts of climate change have shown us that changes to the environment can have significant effects on determinants of health such as clean air, safe drinking water, and sufficient food.

Air quality is one of the best understood examples of the environment–health relationship and its importance has been amplified by Covid-19. Recent research suggests that the number of Covid-19 deaths is higher in regions with higher concentrations of air pollution than in those with pollution-free skies. In general, air pollution has been shown to increase the risk of catching respiratory diseases while also worsening their effects. Nitrogen dioxide, for example, triggers respiratory illnesses such as asthma. Moving forward, assessing the full impact of Covid-19 in countries with strong environmental health policies will be important, as a multitude of health considerations will become more significant as people resume traveling.

This may in turn impact international mobility over the long term. For example, the existence of robust health policies may increase the likelihood of visa agreements being signed between countries. While historically health has not been a major factor in such agreements, the quality of a country’s environmental health policies may feature in the list of considerations in future, and geographies of choice will be those with good health policies backed by clean and safe environments.

Correspondingly, in considering global migration trends, we can expect places that are governed well and better equipped to deal with pandemics to become destinations people will seek to move to, where high-quality medical care is reliable and involuntary quarantine will be more endurable. Just as travel choices will likely be more strongly influenced by health considerations, we may see those acquiring alternative residence or citizenship placing a greater emphasis on a country’s health policies when deciding where to reside.

Questions of environmental justice play an important role in the equation. Environmental factors have an unequal effect on developing countries. Governments that are underfinanced often lack the resources to enhance and avoid industrial degradation of their environmental assets, which can in turn result in poor health outcomes for their populations. Under-resourced, marginalized communities tend to experience worse environmental conditions than affluent, enfranchised communities. Across the globe, even in developed countries such as the UK and the USA, low-income neighborhoods and minority ethnic groups have been disproportionately impacted by coronavirus, with far higher Covid-19 death rates.

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