COVID-19 and migration: we need a firewall

by Chris Bertram on March 10, 2020

Rather obviously COVID-19 is a global public health emergency. Tackling it, particularly in the absence of a vaccine, means blocking and shortening the chains of contagion through personal hygiene and social distancing, identifying people who are infected, treating those who need treatment, enabling the isolation of the infected for as long as they can transmit. & cetera. And the issue is not just about the risk to each of us, but also about the risk we bring to others. So the fact that the fit and young may escape with minor discomfort shouldn’t lead them to exempt themselves from necessary measures, because the chain that leads from them can be a death sentence for a vulnerable or elderly person.

All of which brings me to immigration and, specifically, to immigrant populations. In recent years governments with good public health systems have moved to restrict access to citizens and legal permanent residents. In the UK, one of the features of the “hostile environment” that has led to the Windrush scandal was the denial of medical care to people who couldn’t prove their entitlement. Others have been hit with enormous medical bills because of their nationality and perceived immigration status. But now, obviously, we can’t have a situation where people are deterred from seeking help because they fear being hit with a huge payment.

Nor, in any country, can we have it that people stay in the shadows because they fear that if they come to the attention of medical and other public health authorities, their precarious immigration status will be disclosed and they will be detained and deported. In other words, to fight COVID-19 we need to put in place the “firewall” between the provision of essential public services and immigration enforcement that Joseph Carens argued for in his book *The Ethics of Immigration*. Medics and other public authorities have to be barred from disclosing the immigration status of those they are dealing with in the context of COVID-19 to the immigration enforcment agencies. Otherwise, people will stay hidden, sick, unjustly denied help themselves and blamelessly placing others at risk.

The other relevant group whom states should be reaching out to protect are refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants who those states have coralled in camps and “reception centres” in various places around the world, including the Greek islands but also the archipelago of places where Australia warehouses its unwanted. You can’t effectively protect people from those chains of contagion if you have jammed them together in close proximity in an overcrowded space. Nor can you ensure that they have access to adequate treatment if there are only a few volunteer doctors available for a large population. Naturally, the same goes for those populations stuck beyond the borders of wealthy states in places like Libya or Mexico by their exclusionary policies.

The discourse of populist politicians like Trump, Orban and Salvini is going to be to use COVID-19 to advance their nationalist and anti-immigrant agenda. Journalists urgently need to be asking them, and other politicians, what they are doing to stop that very agenda from having consequences that shame and endanger us all.



Omega Centauri 03.10.20 at 5:21 pm

Its going to be a tough sell. Given the simple hatefilled way that populists communicate, the claim the immigrants are disease ridden subhumans can be self fullfilling. Pack them into unsanitary camps, and it becomes true.


Mike Maltz 03.10.20 at 5:40 pm

Here’s one way you can sell it: do you think that there should be appropriate health care for the people who pick your strawberries and apples, who cook and serve your food?


Gareth Wilson 03.10.20 at 8:15 pm

“The discourse of populist politicians like Trump, Orban and Salvini is going to be to use COVID-19 to advance their nationalist and anti-immigrant agenda.”

You’d think so, but Trump is mostly downplaying the significance of the virus. Either he’s too dumb to realise how well a pandemic supports xenophobia, or he never really cared about that to begin with.


hix 03.10.20 at 10:05 pm

We will see. In Italy it was just too obvious soon that the large Chinese immigrant community had nothing to do with the transmission, so that angle didn´t play out. The connection between failings of US healthcare and a vulunrability towards such a diseas outbreak seems a bit too obvious for Trump to gain anything from makeing corona a big subject in any way.


Franklin Vaughan 03.10.20 at 11:54 pm

A little editorial assistance: You have: “because the chain the leads from them”

You intended: ” because the chain THAT leads from them” ?


Chris Bertram 03.11.20 at 9:07 am

@Frankin thanks!


nobody 03.11.20 at 11:45 pm

do you think that there should be appropriate health care for the people who pick your strawberries and apples, who cook and serve your food?

This argument has been tried on conservatives. It doesn’t work.

It’s a mistake to imagine that conservatives hold the views they do because they don’t understand the consequences of their beliefs or understand the objective benefits of more empathetic societies. Conservatives understand the consequences and benefits very well. They just don’t care about them.

Conservatives are so deeply committed to the idea of a hierarchical, social Darwinist, society of winners and losers that they are happy to die–from inadequate healthcare or any other conservative policy–as long as it means people they view as inferior get less than they do.

Contrary to the hopes of far too many on the left and center left, there is no magic argument that will bring conservatives or ‘moderates’ into accepting the value of an empathetic society. Conservatives are intrinsically devoid of empathy and, instead, see cruelty as a desirable social objective no matter the personal price they pay for it.


One of the few remaining virtues of the Internet is that it is possible to find groups of feral conservatives to examine in their native habitat. If you think I am being too cynical, I urge you to try ‘service workers should have healthcare to keep you from getting sick’ in any of the usual conservative fever swamps on Reddit (such as /r/conservative or /r/the_donald) or elsewhere. You will find the results equally disgusting, depressing, and enlightening.


Stephen 03.12.20 at 7:13 pm

nobody: if I have understood you correctly, your argument means that there are no (or trivially few) conservatives in European, Australian or other nations where universal health care is normal.

Interesting USA-centric perspective, if so.


Jan Wiklund 03.12.20 at 10:14 pm

On the other hand, the cholera epidemic of the 1830s convinced the rich that public sanitation was necessary to stop themselves from being infected.

Self-interest usually works!


Matt 03.13.20 at 11:57 am

Stephen at 8 above:
For what it’s worth, a non-trivial number of people who pick fruit and serve food in Australia are not covered by “universal health care” in some clear senses – many of these people are on temporary visas of different sorts, and must provide their own health insurance. Although they are obliged to do this, many drop the insurance, despite it being a visa violation, as it is pretty expensive, and those who have it often have a minimal cover that includes large co-pays, making trips to the doctor or hospital expensive. (An ER visit for someone who is not a permanent resident in Australia requires a $500 up-front payment, even if private insurance will cover it eventually. This is required before you can be admitted or screened at all. I know this first hand.) Many of these people will also not be eligible for paid sick days and the like. Similarly, as Chris knows and has written about, people w/o legal status are routinely denied health care in the UK. So, the situation for at least some of the people doing these things in Australia is a bit more complicated than suggested.


Chris Bertram 03.13.20 at 12:42 pm

@Matt, I’m told that in the UK Covid-19 is now a legally notifiable disease and is therefore exempt from charging, which is good.


Matt 03.13.20 at 12:44 pm

Good to know, Chris! Thanks.


Chris Bertram 03.13.20 at 6:47 pm

And automatic visa extensions for Chinese nationals unable to return

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