The Impact of Covid-19 and the Future of Global Mobility

With our freedom curtailed once again as governments across the world reinstated lockdown measures late last year due to resurgences of coronavirus, it seems paradoxical to be forecasting the future of global mobility. Yet the signs of our innate desire to move were evident before the pandemic struck. In the year preceding our Covid-19 containment, 1.5 billion international travelers and tourists traversed the globe, and more than 270 million people lived outside their countries of origin.

The pandemic has been a miserable experience for billions of people, surely motivating millions to seek to move at the earliest opportunity, from ‘red zones’ with poor governance and inefficient healthcare to ‘green zones’ where future quarantines would be more tolerable and health systems up-to-date. But health is only the most recent and most obvious driver of largescale migration. Over the past 75 years, labor shortages, political upheaval, economic crises, and climate change have been far more significant factors that have compelled people to move. In many ways, all these variables are interconnected and some even magnify each other. The great reset of today will give way to the next great migration of tomorrow.

Who will get to move, and how? The system will not return to what it was: Nationality will not suffice to guarantee safe passage. After tumbling in international access from 184 destinations in January 2020 to fewer than 75 countries a year later, America will have to climb back up the rankings to reclaim acceptable passport status. Even for still-powerful passports such as Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and members of the EU, additional protocols will be required to re-attain relatively frictionless mobility. For example, to avoid onerous quarantines, individuals will have to certify their health immunity through vaccination certificates and other special registrations.

Even in a scenario of rapid global deployment of a vaccine, large-scale migration will surely be limited and entrenched at the regional level: Europeans within Europe, Asians within Asia, Latin Americans within the western hemisphere. The current economic depression in many countries, depleted savings, political and cultural xenophobia, and other contemporary realities make this all but certain. Furthermore, high unemployment has led to ‘employment nationalism’, with governments strongly pressuring firms to hire citizens over foreigners.

Mobility will therefore be tied much more to individual merit. For those seeking a clean start far from their regions of origin under existing and expanding highly skilled migrant programs, irrespective of their nationality, rigorous checks on their financial, criminal, and professional history are already the norm. This may seem an onerous development, but it also 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, whether for digital nomads, those looking to acquire second passports, or those changing nationality altogether. Even prior to the pandemic, Brexit had pushed British professionals to seek German, French, Spanish, and other nationalities based on lineage, or failing that, to acquire residence leading to citizenship in countries such as Portugal. For Americans, the combination of Covid-19, Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act policy, the country’s waning diplomatic prestige, and the prevailing political uncertainty has pushed record numbers to seek second passports or to expatriate: Nearly 6,000 in the first half of 2020, which is almost double the total number for all of 2019.

Americans have relocated to Canada, Europe, and Asia in record numbers, with a tripling of interest in investment migration or citizenship programs over the course of 2020.

Given that continental European passports have retained high global travel mobility and consistently rank highest in the Kälin – Kochenov Quality of National Index, it is no surprise that Americans, Asians, and Brits have increasingly sought to acquire European citizenship.

Attractive options are also available in countries that have intermediate passport strength but offer open-ended residency. Thailand, for example, has branded itself as a “health oasis” and its Thailand Elite Residence Program for foreigners includes a free annual medical screening. The program allows up to 20 years of residence, and 2020 was a record year, with an almost 25% increase in applications by the end of September compared to the previous year. Dubai, like Bangkok, is a well-connected global hub that is already home to a population that is 90% foreign. Both Thailand and the UAE’s programs are, in effect, indefinite medical tourism in safe, prosperous locations.

Another rapidly expanding category of intentionally temporary destinations for the internationally mobile is countries seeking to attract digital nomads. As telecommuting skyrockets in the wake of the pandemic, countries such as Croatia, Estonia, and Georgia have launched renewable visa schemes to attract service
industry workers who are also referred to as tele-migrants. Other countries with high rankings on Tuft University’s Digital Readiness Index include Canada, the Netherlands, and Norway, and others that could likely make similar offerings attractive to millennials and Gen-Zers.

Let us remember that today’s youth constitute nearly 60% of the global population and tend to have fewer assets and children than Gen-Xers or Baby Boomers. They are socially conscious, environmentally aware, and less nationalistic — all of which makes them potentially the most mobile generation in human history. They herald a seminal shift in mobility from being every country for itself to being every person for themself.

This article was first published in the Global Mobility Report 2021 Q1

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