Global Mobility and Migration Post COVID-19
The combined effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on public health, the global economy, and social behavior may augur deeper shifts in our human geography – our distribution around the world. This may seem ironic given today’s widespread border closures and standstill in global transportation, but as the curtain lifts, people will seek to move from poorly governed and ill-prepared ‘red zones’ to ‘green zones’ or places with better medical care. Alternatively, people may relocate to places where involuntary quarantine, whenever it strikes next, is less torturous. In the US, both domestic and international migration were surging before the pandemic, with Gen-Xers and millennials shifting to cheaper, second-tier cities in the Sun Belt or abroad to Latin America and Asia in search of an affordable life. Once quarantines lift and airline prices stand at rock bottom, expect more people across the globe to gather their belongings and buy one-way tickets to counties or countries affordable enough to start fresh.
The coronavirus pandemic has divided the world into ‘red zones’ that failed to test, quarantine, and treat COVID-19 patients adequately and ‘green zones’ that performed well under the circumstances and flattened the curve. The density of social contact in cities – that accommodate more than 60% of the global population – makes them petri dishes for the spread of contagious diseases. The COVID-19 ‘attack rate’ in New York City was five times the national average. Madrid, Milan, and Seattle are other affluent, modern cities that have nonetheless become virus hotspots. In developing countries such as Brazil and India, home to sprawling mega-cities with teeming slums, it is not yet clear how many people will succumb to the virus. Some countries will prioritize public health and citizen welfare but it’s a safe bet that citizens of Iran and other countries whose municipal and federal governments have been overwhelmed by the virus will make a more concerted effort to emigrate.
Furthermore, amid the looming economic depression, millions of urban dwellers will no longer be able to afford their rents. The urban wage premium has long been eroding due to the rising cost of living; that has been reason enough for cash-strapped millennials and Gen-Zers to decamp from New York and California to Texas and the Sun Belt. Now, with precautionary savings the order of the day, far more people may soon uproot. Blue-state citizens might start to flood underpopulated red states. While it is true that asset prices in cities may significantly correct in the wake of the pandemic, rural areas are still much more affordable and have the added virtue of lower infection rates.
Besides epidemiological and economic factors, technology will drive people’s thinking about where to go. Telecommuting and cloud-based work are the new normal. As broadband and 5G roll-out accelerates, it will be much more widely accepted for FaceTime to replace old-school, office-based face time. Digital talent will further stake its claim to remote work from geographies of choice, whether Wyoming or Bali.
Could entire nations benefit from post-pandemic migration? At the moment, it is too soon to know which countries (if any) have truly been spared by the virus, but it is clear that COVID-19 is spreading more rapidly in places that are roughly 27 degrees north latitude, along which much of the world’s population is concentrated. It might therefore be worth exploring whether countries with colder or warmer temperatures, lower population densities, or less intensive participation in global supply chains are relatively safer.
Countries north of 50 degrees latitude such as Canada and Russia have relatively low infection rates. Canada has become an immigration superpower. In 2018, its net immigration was 350,000 – higher than America’s 250,000 but with 10% of the population. In the southern hemisphere, New Zealand has reported very few infections and has the added virtue of being able to cut itself off with relative ease.
The pandemic has not done away with climate change. Instead of seasonal variations that bring a natural end to each year’s flu, rising temperatures and warmer winters imply longer flu seasons. Longer spells of warm weather also give viruses more time to mutate into other dangerous strains, potentially making the annual flu vaccine more difficult to produce. Furthermore, droughts have been ravaging agriculture in the world’s largest food producing countries – America, Australia, Brazil, China, and India – with greater frequency, while last year’s African swine fever killed a quarter of the world’s pigs. In recent days, signals have emerged around how the coronavirus is stressing agricultural supply chains. Farms in the US and Europe are short of seasonal farm workers as cross-border flows have slowed, leaving high-quality crops to rot and food supply at risk. Major food producing countries such as Russia and smaller ones such as Serbia have begun to ban the export of wheat, vegetables, and food oils.