At the time of writing this column, the novel coronavirus has taken over 397,000 lives and affected over 6.5 million people globally. Although COVID-19 is not a geography-based disease, it affects locals and immigrants differently when it comes to economic and mental health issues.
For example, a study based in Canada found that 44 percent immigrants reported that they are highly concerned about their social ties and 43 percent, men only, said they were worried about meeting financial obligations, while among those born in Canada, the comparable rates were 30 percent and 27 percent (men), respectively.
If this is the scenario of a developed and immigration-friendly country such as Canada, the context might be worse in countries where immigrants are treated unfairly since before the appearance of Covid-19.
In many instances, immigrants are also excluded from government stimulus packages or financial relief that help curb the effects of Covid-19, the USA for instance. Nonetheless, health treatment related to Covid-19, social interaction - in the case of immigrants being forbidden to have contact with locals, and working conditions - in the case of some countries forcing immigrant workers to work despite lockdown, varies between the locals and immigrants in many parts of the world.
There are a couple of explanations on why there is a large gap in relation to economic and mental health issues between locals and immigrants. First, except for a minor population, Covid-19 has resulted in unemployment for thousands of low-skilled immigrants as lockdowns remain in place to curb the virus infection rates in many countries.
This economic hardship has become inevitable and there are no signs of the economy reviving in the near future. This has the potential to facilitate further unbearable mental health issues among immigrants. On top of this, there are the knock-on effects on family members who are largely or solely dependent on the immigrant's income.
Second, immigrants often journey alone to other countries and leave behind their families in their country of origin. Although low-skilled immigrants do not journey back home frequently, many had planned to reunite with their family prior to the emergence of Covid-19. However, they have now had to halt seeing their family for the foreseeable future. This is even worse in countries that have closed their borders to their own citizens.
Third, since the majority of the low-skilled immigrants are from the global south region, countries in these particular areas have reported their deficiency in managing the Covid-19 pandemic and infection rates have been rising sharply in recent days. This has created fear and anxiety among immigrants who have left their family and loved ones in their country of origin. Moreover, some immigrants may have lost their family members already but have been unable to say a final goodbye or attend their funerals, which is deemed important in many religious settings. This may result in additional risk and fear among grieving immigrants unable to leave the host countries.
Fourth, immigrants in many countries were already victims of xenophobia, hate, and discrimination from locals prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, but the current situation may exacerbate the situation. Furthermore, many low-skilled immigrants are also working on the frontline in areas of increased Covid-19 exposure, such as cleaners. They are more vulnerable to the virus due to unhygienic and cramped accommodation facilities which in itself may trigger and/or facilitate mental health issues among such individuals.
Fifth, as the lockdown measures have slowed down economic activities worldwide and the global economy will not recover quickly even when the lockdowns are eased. Many immigrants will be the first in line to lose their jobs in countries which are drafting policies to terminate foreign workers first if lay-offs are inevitable. Some countries, such as Malaysia, have enacted draconian policies to deport illegal immigrants which may also trigger anxiety and fear among both legal and illegal immigrants. It may be a difficult and life-threatening choice for immigrants to go back to their country of origin where the situation might be even worse than it is in the host country. Overall, immigrants are likely to bear higher levels of economic and mental health costs than non-immigrants.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, host countries should not turn their backs on ensuring health and safety of the immigrants. Immigrants are and will continue to be an important part of many countries' development and they contribute in many aspects in helping to fight Covid-19 by working in the frontline as doctors and cleaners. Consequently, they deserve equal treatment from the host countries regarding mental and economic livelihoods.
Moreover, countries that largely depend on immigrants for a significant amount of remittance inflow should also find ways on helping their citizens through embassies/consulates across the countries. It is high time for the respective governments to show that they care for their citizens regardless of their immigrant status. As it has often been said that the Covid-19 pandemic is a 'humanitarian crisis with a public health dimension', humanity should prevail before race, religion, color, and origin while treating immigrants.
Note: This column is based on the authors' previous academic research published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research
Dr Md Aslam Mia, is a senior lecturer at the School of Management, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Pulau Pinang, Malaysia and Dr Mark D Griffiths, is a distinguished professor at Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, United Kingdom (UK)