covid panel

Social distancing and lockdown measures around the world have left millions of migrant workers jobless and facing hunger, sparking mass return migrations to home territories where there is agricultural and other access to food, according to a briefing by Ethnic Media Services on May 8. Seen above: Stranded Indian migrant workers queue to board buses taking them to special train services to return to their homes, in Ahmedabad on May 12, 2020. (Sam Panthaky/AFP via Getty Images)

SAN FRANCISCO – In developing nations around the world, the coronavirus pandemic is causing mass displacement, worsening poverty and pushing millions into hunger.

On May 8, Ethnic Media Services hosted “Covid-19's Impact on the Developing World; Experts Discuss Global Migration, the Amazon Rainforest, Hunger Hotspots,” the sixth video-conference in EMS’s series tracking the COVID-19 pandemic.

Demetrios Papademetriou, co-founder and president emeritus, Migration Policy Institute; Dan Nepstad, president and founder, Earth Innovation Institute; and Bread for the World policy specialist Dulce Gamboa spoke on the threat the pandemic poses to livelihood and survival in developing nations.       

The future of migration, Papademitrou said, will be determined by how “we climb out of this economic abyss” and how quickly we do it. Prior to Covid-19, migration was determined by “an elite consensus” – as Papademitrou described it – that based immigration rates on national demographics, including the need for workers and population replacement. Countries that have been open to immigrants and refugees may close their borders, he said, adding that assumptions about how many new workers are needed will have to be reexamined.

Around the world, migrant workers comprise the bulk of daily wage earners, leaving villages and small towns to find informal employment in urban centers.

But social distancing and lockdown measures have left millions of these workers jobless and facing hunger, sparking mass return migrations to home territories where there is agricultural and other access to food.

In Peru, 200,000 people have left Lima on foot to get back to the Andean Altiplano. “It’s incredibly dire circumstances to do that,” says Dan Nepstad, of the Earth Innovation Institute. “Lima is in the middle of the desert and they have to go up into the highland and the down into the Amazon.”

And in India, where 470 million people migrate for work, 140 million people are trying to get home and it is estimated that between 500,000 - 600,000 are walking, often traveling hundreds of miles. (See India-West story here:

The economic upheaval in the migrant labor force has dealt a massive blow to remittances.

In 2018 and 2019, India was the world’s highest recipient of remittance payments, and the World Bank further reports that remittances to India grew by over 14 percent in 2018 following the deadly floods in Kerala. World Bank economists expect a 23 percent drop in remittances to India as a result of the lockdown and have calculated a $142 billion drop in remittance payments worldwide.

“Remittances are a life for those who receive them and that line will be thinner and much more precarious,” Papademetriou said.

According to Dulce Gamboa, COVID-19 is expected to double the number of people facing food insecurity.

Lockdowns have disrupted agricultural supply routes, caused sudden losses of income and food prices have collapsed, as has the global tourism industry.

By the end of the year, 265 million people will face food shortages and hunger, and it is expected that 94 million people in 29 countries will need humanitarian assistance in 2020 due to COVID-19.

“Economic decline, poverty and hunger are always intertwined and so we think global food security programs could face additional risk if humanitarian aid is not delivered during this emergency,” Gamboa said.

In India, where about 176 million people survive on less than $2 a day, people are more worried about dying of hunger than of COVID-19.

Countries affected by food crises prior to the pandemic, including war-torn Yemen and regions in East Africa beset by a historic locust plague, are now at risk for famine.

“The rise in malnutrition is inevitable,” said Gamboa, noting that even before the pandemic about nine million Venezuelans were suffering from malnutrition. “What you have in Venezuela and other countries around the world the pandemic is on top of the nutritional crisis.”

In the United States, migrant and undocumented families also face hunger. There are an estimated 11-14 million unauthorized immigrants in United States, including 630,000 Indians, according to a report by South Asian Americans Leading Together. They are ineligible for unemployment and have thus far been left out of stimulus packages.

Gamboa says Bread for the World is advocating for theses families, asking Congress to include them in the next stimulus package, and asking for racial equity in access to testing and healthcare. “We need to continue lifting our voice to make sure Congress does the right thing. The most important thing is that we need to protect all people in the United States to be able to really effectively respond to the coronavirus, so whether you are undocumented or not, it’s just doing the right thing to make sure everyone is protected during this pandemic.”

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