Migrants workers – the silent victims of this crisis
IT took a mere matter of hours for the tweet to go viral. It was easy to see why. As the COVID-19 pandemic tightened its grip on the globe, the ‘view from an Indian doctor’ tweet spoke to the immunity, of a kind, of social distancing in countries that can, relative to their poorer counterparts, afford to.
“Most of the ways to ward the Corona off are accessible only to the affluent,” the unnamed doctor said, adding that lockdowns – which require essentials such as healthcare, housing, access to running water, sanitizers, communications devices such mobile phones and computers, as well as secure food lines – are a privilege.
“All of us who are practicing social distancing and have imposed a lockdown on ourselves must appreciate how privileged we are. Many Indians won’t be able to do any of this”.
The Coronavirus pandemic, caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2, is, in many respects, an extraordinary leveler that has shown no regard for wealth, culture or class, as the death tolls in countries such as the US, China, UK, Spain and Italy sadly attest. However, it is unbanked migrant workers and their families, and the developing and emerging economies on whose remittances they rely, that may ultimately pay the greatest cost.
The knock-on effects
As Governments lockdown their populations and deploy emergency measures to shore up their economies, there are fears that the global shutdown could lead to a series of humanitarian and economic crises that may endanger more lives, in the medium to long-term, than the immediate public health emergency measures the lockdowns are intended to contain.
Late last week, the world watched in a horrified awe as the United States broke records, as the number of Americans filing for first-time unemployment benefits soared to more than six million, with 10 million people losing their jobs in less than two weeks.
But it is perhaps India – the second most populated country in the world after China with a conservative estimate of some 120 million migrant workers – that captures the chaos wrought by a virus whose genius ensures that it disrupts every subject, social or economic, that it comes into contact with.
In recent days, the world has witnessed harrowing scenes of stranded laborers in India as hundreds of thousands of desperately poor workers, many with their families in tow, flee the megacities in which they worked to seek refuge in the rural villages from which they come from. Such was the scale of the crisis, which left not only tens of millions of migrant workers suddenly unemployed – just as its vast transport system was instantly shuttered – that India’s Supreme Court ordered the government to ensure the safety of all migrant workers in transit, asking the federal government to try step in to prevent migration of people due to coronavirus.
What of the remittance market
And whilst much of our media coverage tilts, inevitably, towards the world’s wealthiest economies, the pandemic could prove disastrous for developing countries that rely heavily on remittances and other micro-utility services. As communities remain in lockdown in their homes and businesses remain shuttered – closing off the cash-out options for receivers of remittances.
Remittances are vital cogs that grease the wheels of the global economy. And they were on track to reach $US 597 billion to low and middle-income countries by next year, according to the World Bank, before Coronavirus struck.
The biggest beneficiaries of remittances and other forms of micro finance are mostly in Asia, with countries such as India, China and the Philippines dominating the global inflow leagues.
However, there are many more countries that rely on receiving remittances, and value transfer such as airtime top-up which Ding facilitates, for survival. These services enable migrant workers to support their families back home – and enable communities in developing nations to function.
A question of survival
Ding serves these customers by facilitating the instant transfer of airtime and data top-up to the phones of loved ones back home, allowing them to stay connected. In times like this many of our customers who traditionally may have visited a local Exchange house to send credit to loved ones – are now increasingly finding themselves online trying to send this value. However, for those migrants who are unbanked and do not have credit cards – this is not an option.
For those who don’t have access to basic telecommunications infrastructure, and who live in a cash-driven economy – who now find themselves locked out of exchange houses and other bricks-and-mortar outlets that allow them to remit and receive money – this is becoming a question of survival.
It has become something of a mantra for world leaders to state, in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, that no one is safe until everyone is safe, that no one and no country will be left behind.
The pandemic has exposed, once again, the significance of remittances to propel growth and reduce poverty in vulnerable economies. It has also reminded us of the billions of people who are locked out of Internet access, and transacting online – a vital utility at this time. And also the billions who remain in the cash economy that needs the support of exchange houses, Tobac stores, and other retail businesses around the world. This virus may be a leveler in terms of who it infects – but we are still some way from seeing this great leveling in terms of peoples ability to try to prevent it – or function during it.
That Indian doctor was right: it’s time to check our privilege.