Since the COVID-19 crisis began, there are now more than 1.4 million cases worldwide in about 185 countries and territories; more than 83,000 people have died – and all of these numbers are climbing. No region is immune.
Every day we see more data that this highly contagious virus does not discriminate, however its impact can be highly discriminatory. Certainly, the elderly or those with compromised immune systems are at high risk – but also, an already extremely vulnerable and overlooked population: migrants and displaced. The latest tally suggests our world is home to 258 million international migrants. While not all of these people are vulnerable, 70 million have been forcibly displaced by conflict and violence – both within their countries and cross-border – and an average of 24 million are displaced by disasters and effects of climate change every year. In a crisis where we are all explicitly told to “stay home” to help contain the spread of this virus, how do those who have been displaced from their homes comply? When you no longer have a home, “sheltering in place” is simply not an option, and this challenge further compounds your existing vulnerabilities as a migrant.
This past January, the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center (AARFRC) and the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) made a joint-visit to the border of Colombia and Venezuela, to see firsthand, the humanitarian crisis that has been ongoing in the region for nearly five years – and it’s the largest population movement crisis ever seen in the Americas.
We visited the Simón Bolivar bridge, where tens of thousands of migrants from Venezuela cross daily, to see where migrant journeys begin. At this same bridge is where we see the first of IFRC’s Humanitarian Service Points (HSP) – lifelines for migrants which provide essential services like healthcare, water and sanitation, psycho-social support, and critical (sometimes lifesaving) guidance and information for the journeys that lie ahead for these individuals or groups walking hundreds of miles away from what they used to call home. With support from hundreds of volunteers, Red Cross Societies including Colombia and Ecuador have been able to station – and at times be mobile to adjust to migrant paths – these HSPs from border-to-border to “walk with migrants” along their strenuous journeys.
Migration Mission to the Colombia-Venezuela Border
Fast forward three months: migrants are still crossing the Simón Bolivar bridge every day, people displaced by conflict and situations of violence are still in camps in the Mediterranean, migrant workers have lost their livelihoods, and the entire world is facing a pandemic.
How do we reduce vulnerability of the most vulnerable? How do we foster inclusion and reduce xenophobia in a time of social and physical distancing?
For starters, we can continue to meet migrants where they are. The HSPs are well positioned to raise awareness among migrants and host communities about COVID-19, and to provide migrants with practical information on how to access healthcare and appropriate treatment if infected. Information is power and at the community level, reaching and informing migrants is equally as important as it is for the wider public. This is imperative from the perspective of protection and basic human-rights, and there is a clear public health rationale to extend all COVID19 outbreak readiness and response measures to everyone to ensure full coverage, regardless of citizen status.
As a universal tool, social media reaches everyone with access to mobiles phones or computers. Ensuring migrants are aware of reliable sources, they can access accurate and real-time reporting and guidance. This has been true for migrants as they make their journeys – the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab monitors the information environment in order to produce public reporting focusing on disinformation narratives targeting migrant populations. IFRC and its network of 192 country-level national societies and 13 million volunteers are doing the same, pushing out trustworthy and accessible information to migrants and host communities included as a vital activity to reduce the risks of COVID-19. This information is delivered via digital and social media platforms, and often targets at-risk communities where people gather, like places of worship, community centers and Humanitarian Service Points.
It is important however to balance raising awareness of the risks that migrants may face with ensuring that xenophobic attitudes and social stigma of people from certain nationalities being associated with COVID-19 are not promoted. Working together, AARFRC and IFRC can help counter xenophobia by leveraging their combined efforts and affiliated networks to change the narrative and encourage social inclusion around migration. This vision will bring us closer to a resilient world where societies are safer, healthier, compassionate, more inclusive, and flourish through diversity.
In uncertain times humanity historically comes together to embrace our commonalities. In the case of COVID-19, we can achieve more together if we include migrants as active participants in our efforts to quell the spread and impact of this disease.
Walter Cotte is Regional Director for the Americas, International Federation for Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies
Rebecca Scheurer is Director, Humanitarian Initiatives, Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center
New Atlanticist Apr 8, 2020
Massive testing program could hold keys to ending coronavirus crisis
By David A. Wemer
A massive nationwide testing program could help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) and could provide a roadmap for rolling back the extensive social distancing measures implemented across the United States and around the world, according to Nobel laureate economist Paul Romer and Dr. Raj Shah, president of The Rockefeller Foundation and former administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
New Atlanticist Apr 1, 2020
Cities “on the front lines” of the coronavirus crisis
By David A. Wemer
As the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic worsens and deaths increase around the world, national and local governments are racing to prepare their healthcare systems, infrastructure, and economies to weather the current storm. “The world writ large was not adequately prepared to see what has come,” former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said on April 1, adding that now it is up to mayors and local officials who “are really on the frontlines,” to take action to protect their citizens.
New Atlanticist Mar 16, 2020
Addressing the coronavirus “infodemic”
By David A. Wemer
“Information, including disinformation and misinformation about the novel coronavirus is spreading faster than the pandemic itself,” Atlantic Council President and CEO Frederick Kempe explained. The sheer amount of information on the outbreak means that government and business leaders need to take specific actions to ensure that their citizens and employees receive important credible information.