Pandemic crisis exposes failures in government response and underlying inequalities

March 18, 2020 With the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic declaration on March 11, countries around the world began implementing restrictions in hopes of containing the virus or at least slowing its spread.  Efforts in the Americas started with the closure of schools and universities, cancelation of events, closure of public and private spaces, and restrictions around foreigners entering the country, such as those in Argentina.  As the week progressed, the rapidly changing landscape evolved to include quarantines (both home-based and in State-run facilities) and the declarations of states of emergency– accompanied by a suspension of constitutional protections in countries such as El Salvador, Honduras, and  Ecuador. The pandemic has led to border closures in Chile, Guatemala, El Salvador, Canada, and Colombia,  as well as in the European Union, Spain, and many African countries. In contrast, México has lagged behind and is now one of the last countries to take protective measures.  Chaos in the federal response in the United States was made worse by the shameful practice of continuing with deportations and migration court orders of removal despite the global emergency.  In Honduras, the Hernández government sent out the armed forces to patrol the area where the first cases of COVID-19 were confirmed, reflecting that government’s instinct to seek a military solution to every problem, even a virus.   

But beyond cataloguing and reflecting on the direct impact of these restrictions and extraordinary actions, the global state of emergency calls us to take a serious look at the fragility of our public systems.  Both health care and food security for millions of people are at risk. What should countries be doing to guarantee basic subsistence and dignified conditions for all those who live there?

A pandemic is not just a challenge for public health systems– the social and economic blows are just starting to be felt. Social distancing quickly becomes isolation, as governments tell people to stay home and work remotely to contain the spread of the virus. And even that isolation is a luxury that most people can ill afford.  Those who can work from home are the lucky ones, as compared to the rest of the women and men who give up their livelihoods to the quarantine or keep working under conditions that put their health at risk.  The latter include healthcare professionals, first responders, care-givers for the elderly, and all those tasked with keeping the cities clean and safe.  This reflects a host of underlying systemic problems including the undervaluing of the care economy and provides a brutal window into the reality of economic injustice.  The economic  consequences of COVID-19 will be felt around the world, but some will feel it immediately and more painfully. Unpaid work, particularly care work, which is still mainly performed by women, will increase dramatically with the closure of schools and families unable to leave their homes. We have already begun to see signs of the economic recession, which will also have a disproportionate impact on those same workers and on poor people.

Anti-immigrant policies have grave consequences in the US

Acting deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Ken Cuccinelli has recently told democratic lawmakers behind closed doors that coronavirus related care would not be impacted by the public charge rule. However, the public charge policy has been found to discourage people from seeking treatment for fear it would negatively impact their adjustment of status. So much so that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention is currently investigating the impact the public charge rule has on public health. Additionally, within the immigration detention system, the spread of COVID-19 is inevitable as several reports highlight rampant health risks in detention centers. The most basic necessities such as clean water and soap are not guaranteed. Prolonged detention coupled with overcrowding increases the possibilities for an outbreak. While doctors consider an outbreak inevitable, the deportation of migrants creates the additional risk of spreading COVID-19 to Central America. This is especially worrisome given the agreements between Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala that facilitate deportations. Exposure to COVID-19 within detention centers is negligent and infringes on a migrant’s basic human rights, and continued deportations constitute a clear violation of international treaty obligations. The accord with Guatemala has led to a union of 700 U.S. asylum and refugee officers to speak out against the deportation of asylum seekers to Guatemala where they are likely to face persecution. 

The U.S. had asserted that deportation flights to El Salvador and Central America would continue. However, Guatemala announced Tuesday that it would suspend both deportations and reception under the asylum agreement as part of its effort to stop the spread of COVID. El Salvador declared a national quarantine on March 18, closing its airports to all flights except humanitarian missions and suspending deportation flights. There is still a great fear for the people trapped in Mexico under the Migration Protection Protocols (MPP) or those asylum-seekers who remain in U.S. Detention. 

There is no doubt that the Trump Administration continues to push forward its anti-immigrant policies, despite the pandemic.  Nor is there any doubt that the consequences of that choice will be dire– not only for people who are seeking asylum or in deportation proceedings, but for all the workers who come in contact with them, and the communities to which they are returned.  Governments cannot continue with business as usual. This crisis calls for a refocusing of priorities toward protecting public health, and that means protecting the health of every single person living in a given territory, including those born in other countries, without regard to their migration status.  The corona virus should be a wake up call for countries to confront the deeper problems that also threaten all of us, starting with profound economic inequality.