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Compassion, COVID-19 and the Refugee Crisis

Updated: Jun 7, 2020

How COVID-19 has demonstrated the fragility of nation states and the need for a compassionate global community.

COVID-19 has demonstrated that our borders are superficial and, in our increasingly globalised community, the dangers that cannot be physically shut out are constantly increasing. It should not be treated as an “unprecedented” event but as a warning of the dangers to come if we are not attentive to all the living parts of our global community; this involves supporting the most vulnerable global citizens, the refugee population. COVID-19 has made many of us turn inwards, channelling natural instincts for personal and, by extension, national survival. Yet this ignores some fundamental economic and biological truths – that infrastructural, economic and political reform at an international level to support the most vulnerable will necessarily create a more inhabitable world for all. An initial shutdown to stem the spread of the virus is appropriate yet I fear a subsequent isolationist turn is possible and must be prevented because COVID-19 is not the first entity to transcend the artificial lines we have drawn in our world and it certainly won’t be the last.

Nation states are fundamentally unfit to tackle challenges arising from planet-wise interdependence such as disease pandemics, environmental pressures, natural disasters and the inevitable increase of technological and bio-terrorism. Yet our sense of vulnerability and panic at these daunting prospects causes an introversion, to our nation, for a protection that it simply cannot provide. The refugee population represent the insecurity of a nation-state. Their State’s failure to protect them from environmental, political or financial crisis embodies the collapse of order that we so fear, and we hope that by slamming the door in their face we can shut out the global forces that brought them there.

The way the political world is framed and understood renders the refugee population "worldless" among a consortium of spliced states. This sense of dislocation is compounded by the notion that refugees are treated as security threats and economic burdens whose lives can be shunted around the countries’ doors on which they knock. Refugee issues have too often been outsourced into the hands of internal security; refugee rights undermined in the name of political safety; a convenient way for each country to wash their hands of the “whole debacle”. As Hegel warned two centuries ago, the owl of Minerva spreads its wings at dusk or more blatantly put, we only learn that which is to define our time in retrospect. I fear that we shall only learn the inherent flaws in an isolationist approach when it is too late. Ignoring the gaps in our global economy and closing our eyes to those who desperately need support will only come back to bite us as I will now explain.

COVID-19 has highlighted the flaws in the international socioeconomic structures. Kemal Davies describes it as a “hub-and-spoke network” where all nodes are separated by very short distances and essential functions are centralised in large hubs; for instance the US takes the lead in financial activity, China monopolises manufacture whilst the majority of food production is outsourced to countries which rely on cheap labour and specific climates. This creates the enormous risk of “fat-tailedness” or the likelihood of unquantifiable extreme events such as global warming, bio-terrorism and pandemics wreaking havoc on central hubs which can quickly paralyse the global economy leading to widespread poverty and of course displacement. When these events inevitably occur, our instinct is to turn inwards and provide short term solutions to our own countries’ problems considering globalisation was clearly part of the problem. Take the UK government’s response to COVID-19. Despite its initial lackadaisy, the UK has taken a much-needed person orientated, (dare I say it) Socialist approach. 80% homeless have been housed, 80% unemployment subsidised, compassionate leave offered, NHS spending increased etc. All this is admirable, and I do not in any way undermine the necessity for short-term, immediate relief. Yet there has been a lack of forward-facing international cooperation.

From a pragmatic perspective, the world needs to immediately start implementing mechanisms that can isolate these risks early on, crafting temporary travel and trade restrictions for so-called “unprecedented” events and produce cohesive global strategies for action. The international community could also benefit from restructuring its hub-and-spoke system into one that prevents central hubs being choke points allowing the world to cascade into systematic collapse. This sort of economic reform would be at the expense of capitalist efficiency, economics of scale and the ever-increasing privilege gap but arguably worth the risk if it were to lessen the devastating impact of global pandemics. Perhaps, as Dervis writes, “the losses arising from COVID-19 will encourage efforts to bring about a better model of globalisation”. Why is this relevant to the refugee crisis?

It proves that our nation is not enough. COVID-19 should tell us that we are part of a global community whose economic, political and biological lives are inherently intertwined. Yuval-Harari implores us to understand that viruses evolve and thus the spread of “any virus in any country endangers the entire human species”; take Ebola – the which jumped from a bat to a human and a single mutation in a single gene in a single person somewhere in the Makona area of West Africa enabled a strain to emerge that is now four times more infectious to humans. This same thing could happen in any refugee camp where the population outstrips the capacity by tens of thousands of people. Furthermore, Yuval-Harari reminds us that epidemics have spread rapidly since the Middle Ages, long before the age of globalisation and that the real protection comes from “sharing reliable scientific information and from global solidarity” which necessarily demands a greater level of international trust and cooperation. Demobilising the refugee community in an attempt to stem the flow of COVID-19 will not stop it from spreading, but the lack of medical or economic infrastructure in overcrowded and poorly sanitised camps, might make the emergence of new strains far more likely.

Only yesterday there were reports of people abusing NHS nurses for being “disease spreaders” before stealing their “fast pass badges” a devastating portrayal of the lack of compassion that humans can have for one another particularly during uncertain times. COVID-19 has demonstrated the fragility of borders and the danger of xenophobia, isolationism and distrust between nation-states. Humanity is in crisis. The crisis lies in the lack of trust and compassion we have for each other and the world as a whole and there is no escape from this crisis other than the solidarity of humans.

Kristy Richards is graduate from the University of Oxford, currently studying for her Masters in Near and Middle Eastern Studies with Intensive Arabic at SOAS. Her main areas of interest are the MENA region, inter-sectional politics and human rights discourse.