#2 Miniseries : COVID-19 and global dimensions of inequality

“It is high time to reduce the vulnerabilities of migrant workers”, says Amina Maharjan, Senior Specialist in Livelihoods and Migration at ICIMOD, Kathmandu. Amina Maharjan is second up in the Global Research Programme on Inequality’s (GRIP) miniseries of interviews on the current COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on the multiple dimensions of inequality.

“It is high time to reduce the vulnerabilities of migrant workers”, says Amina Maharjan, Senior Specialist in Livelihoods and Migration at ICIMOD, Kathmandu. Amina Maharjan is second up in the Global Research Programme on Inequality’s (GRIP) miniseries of interviews on the current COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on the multiple dimensions of inequality.

Migrant workers in Beijing construction site
Migrant workers at a construction site in Beijing. Photo: ILO Asia-Pacific / Flickr

We are already seeing how the impacts of the COVID-19 are unevenly distributed depending on where you live, your job situation, age, class position, gender, ethnicity, the availability of health services, and a range of other factors. In this series we provide short interviews with scholars and relevant organisations that share their insights and views on how the pandemic might exacerbate or alter existing inequalities across six key dimensions: social, economic, cultural, knowledge, environmental and political inequalities.

 

Amina Maharjan, Senior Specialist, Livelihoods and Migration, ICIMOD. Photo: Jitendra Raj Bajracharya/ICIMOD.

For this week’s interview, we have talked with Amina Maharjan, Senior Specialist in Livelihoods and Migration, working at The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Kathmandu. Maharjan is focusing particularly on the migration aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Migration is an important livelihood strategy in South Asia, where a large number of households depend on remittances to meet their basic needs. How do the impacts of the corona-outbreak reveal societal inequalities, particularly concerning the migrant population? 

 

In order to control the COVID-19 spread many governments in the region have imposed lockdowns. For people with savings, stocking basic necessities and continuing life is difficult but possible. But for migrant workers, particularly daily wage earners whose incomes are affected by loss of daily work, life becomes extremely complicated. With lockdown, they are not able to earn their living and they have no savings or other safety nets to survive under the lockdown. This clearly reveals the inequalities that exists in the society. Most of these migrant workers also do not have a social network to fall back on. As a result, under the lockdown we have seen scenes of thousands of workers trying to go back home, creating scenes of chaos and panic in many cities of India. The migrant workers were not given sufficient time to make their travel arrangements.

 

South Asia is also a major source for migrant workers in the Gulf countries. As the virus spread rapidly, there was little time to think about the thousands of migrant workers in their destinations. With the closure of air transport, most migrant workers are stuck in their destinations even though they wish to return. There is so far little information about their situation in the destination countries, but a lot of concern regarding their job security and daily maintenance.

 

With the growing panic, another challenge that migrant workers (both internal and international) are facing is the stigma. As the media reports of COVID-19 positive cases with travel history grows, people are reluctant to accept anybody returning from another place to their places of origin. The mandatory self-quarantine implementation has also targeted and stigmatized migrant workers, who have in some cases been threatened with forced evictions from their rented homes. Some migrant workers are also worried whether their own villages will accept them or allow them to return home.

 

Can we expect a disproportionately higher adverse impact on migrant population and their households from the corona crisis? What groups would be hardest hit?   

 

It is clear that the COVID-19 will have a huge impact on the overall global economy. For a country like Nepal, what the effect will be is difficult to assess. Remittances (both internal and international) have been an important source of income for thousands of migrant households. With the adverse global economy, the main source of livelihoods of these households are likely to be significantly affected. In the past decade, many people have moved from remote hill villages to nearby towns and cities. These households depend on remittances from their family members and other sources of income. If the work opportunities get reduced in the future, this group of households will be adversely affected.

 

People living in their home-villages can find other alternatives to cope with this crisis, but for migrant workers this might be more difficult. For instance, in a remote village in Nepal, people were slowly replacing agriculture-based livelihoods with tourism because of the relatively high profitability in the tourism sector as compared to subsistence farming. However, as the tourist season got affected by COVID-19, households have started to fall back on agriculture-based livelihoods by planting potatoes and other vegetables. Such alternative might be difficult for migrant workers who might not have access to land and other natural resources. In the long run, the hardest hit from this crisis will probably the urban poor migrant households.

 

What can be learnt from this pandemic in terms of reducing vulnerabilities of the migrant workers in the future? 

 

This global pandemic also shows how unprepared the global community was for dealing with the issue. Globalization has benefited a lot of people globally, but it has also created challenges. This pandemic shows these challenges and how countries are not prepared for such an outcome. Hopefully, from this pandemic the global community will learn to face future challenges together.

 

For countries in South Asia, with a large migrant population (both internal and international), hopefully this would provide a good learning ground for better cooperation between states within the country and among countries. During other natural disasters, the remittances that the migrant workers send home have proven to be crucial lifeline in times of crisis. But in this global pandemic, the migrants themselves have been the most vulnerable without any support system. For countries with high migrant populations, it is high time to work on reducing the vulnerabilities of migrant workers, as this benefits not only the migrants, but also their families.

 

The next interview in this series will be with Anwesha Dutta, Chr. Michelsen Institute, focusing on India.