In the face of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, questions of resource allocation, information access, aseptisation, and biopolitics that were once reserved for the poor and remote are made plausible realities for the Western, postmodern city-dweller. In response, spheres of society have put forth various monodisciplinary “solutions” to stem the spread of COVID-19 and the ensuing economic crisis, though none built through dialogue with another. Influencing many of these responses are the international law frameworks of security and militarization and the Security Council’s contentious construction of crisis. The Silicon Valley tech community endeavors to build a scalable, configurable phone app that can allow for contact tracing on a global scale—overcoming issues of interoperability, data security, and data storage. The Geneva human rights community’s focus is ensuring states’ emergency legislation adhere to principles of legality, necessity and proportionality, and non-discrimination, and that such measures are time-bound. And the populist business community wants quarantine measures to end so that economies can rebuild. Despite this parade of solutions, the coronavirus problem is not being “solved” for everyone.
The COVID-19 pandemic is having a disproportionate impact on marginalized communities: in terms of mortality, systemic disadvantage, structural violence, and economic suffering. A contact tracing app will not track community transmission in communities without digital connectivity or smartphones; legislation with a sunset clause does not protect those who are being killed due to enforcement of curfews; business closures do not protect those operating in the informal work sector; and a vaccine does not protect those who lack access to healthcare or simply cannot afford or access it. Some might argue that the fact that those at the margins are forgotten or neglected, as a starting point, is symptomatic of a lack of a coordinated global response in terms of law and assistance. Scholars have spoken about design and implementation flaws with the International Health Regulations (the “sole binding legal instrument dedicated to the prevention and control of the international spread of disease”); the lack of a Human Rights Committee General Comment on public health emergencies; the delayed response by the World Health Organization; and the belated Security Council Resolution.
With these concerns in mind, I have conducted research over the past six months regarding the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, its response, and the affiliated economic crisis on marginalized communities in the comparative case studies of Colombia, Nigeria, and the United Kingdom. My research is ongoing, and will inform a broader academic research project in which I take a critical approach to international law in analyzing the global COVID-19 response. My analysis is based on extensive primary research conducted with diverse actors and organizations on the ground in Colombia, Nigeria, and the United Kingdom, as well as secondary research gathered through periodicals, webinars, an online course in contact tracing, and membership in the Human Rights Working Group of the Global Pandemic Network. This post will be confined to specific findings from my Colombian research on migrants and refugees, as well as potential action items for the Harvard community.
COVID-19 in Colombia: A Migrant’s Perspective
The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly exacerbated the pre-existing migrant crisis in Colombia. Since 2015, approximately five million refugees and migrants have left Venezuela due to the ongoing humanitarian crisis, marking the largest mass emigration in the region’s history. In Colombia, the Venezuelan migrant population rose from a mere 39,000 in 2015 to a whopping 1.82 million in March 2020. And these figures do not even begin to account for the migrants who merely transit the porous border between the two countries: in 2019 alone, nearly 500,000 migrants and refugees transited from Venezuela through Colombia to other countries, and 3.4 million people regularly commute between the two countries to obtain access to basic services.
In line with commitments made in the 2018 Quito Declaration, in January 2020, Migration Colombia announced the creation of two new Special Stay Permits (Permiso Especial de Permanencia) that seek to regularize the status of Venezuelan migrants by allowing them to stay and work in the country. Despite these positive steps toward regularized stay, many Venezuelan migrants still have an irregular status, due to a plethora of material and legal barriers. This irregular status, and the accompanying lack of documentation, effectively prevents these migrants from accessing government services. With a geopolitical landscape that is anything but welcoming to Venezuelan migrants, and the seven official entry points between the two states closed, the COVID-19 pandemic has made their situation that much worse.
With many migrants already finding themselves in precarious financial situations pre-pandemic, several of their challenges during the pandemic have been economic in nature. Migrants are facing exacerbated challenges of hunger, access to healthcare, and more, as they struggle to secure identity documents and are left without sources of income. And the exercise of these social, cultural, civil, and political rights is not any better at home in Venezuela.
In Colombia, the World Food Programme has forecasted food insecurity to sharply increase from the 3.3 million pre-pandemic figures, with over 300,000 additional migrants in need of emergency support. This grave food insecurity is only worsened as those who typically work in the informal work sector and small businesses are unable to do so during quarantine. Despite government guidelines for preventing, detecting, and treating COVID-19 cases among the migrant population, an action plan to include Venezuelan migrants in the pandemic response, and guarantees that migrants will have equal access to COVID-19-related healthcare, the health rights of migrants writ large have not been adequately recognized nor effectuated in the pandemic context. While pre-pandemic, migrants in Colombia were by law guaranteed access to emergency health services, the Constitutional Court has continuously limited the right to health of those with an irregular immigration status. On paper, undocumented migrants have equal access rights, but logistical, administrative, and monetary barriers prevent them from obtaining such access.
In addition, paramilitary forces operate with impunity on the Venezuelan-Colombian border. As a result, migrants are subjected to recruitment and extreme enforcement of quarantine measures. Without use of the official entry points, migrants are forced to use more dangerous, informal border crossings (trochas). These crossings are controlled by gangs and trafficking networks who not only charge a hefty fee to pass, but also will often commit sexual violence against female travelers. Human trafficking groups look for vulnerable minors to sell into prostitution. In addition, armed groups take advantage of the precariousness of the migrants’ situations through offering food, shelter, and approximately $300 USD per month—more than 30 times Venezuelan minimum wage. Although the U.S. military deployed troops to the border region in June to combat drug trafficking and related crime, this militarization might actually increase risks for vulnerable migrants.
Finally, Venezuelan migrants have suffered a great deal of xenophobia. Some Colombians have protested perceived special assistance to Venezuelans during the pandemic and blamed Venezuelans for the spread of COVID-19 in the border areas—and frictions coarsen any time a Venezuelan is seen to not comply with a quarantine restriction. Xenophobic discourse permeates conversations between neighbors, colleagues, and friends. Augmenting this discourse is social media and misinformation. In response to a false complaint of Venezuelan migrants attempting to forcibly enter a Villa del Rosario building, pre-quarantine, the mayor militarized the city. And confrontations between the Colombian state and Venezuelan migrants are often followed by spikes in related xenophobic remarks on social media. After a violent confrontation between Colombian traffic police and Venezuelan migrants at the end of July, one Twitter user reportedly asked, in a survey, “¿Los policías que le dispararon a los venecos son sus heroes? Porque son los míos.”—roughly, “Are the police who shot the Venezuelan men your heroes? Because they are mine.” 1,100 Twitter users responded in the affirmative. Despite public statements and international efforts to combat xenophobia, the mentality is on the rise.
Unfortunately, many Venezuelan migrants are caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, they might seek refuge in a Colombia where their most basic human needs are unable to be met—and they are susceptible to recruitment and xenophobic treatment. On the other hand, they might turn to a Venezuela where a repressive government leads a violent humanitarian crisis, views returnees as “biological weapons,” and remains unable to treat all those affected by COVID-19. More than 95,000 Venezuelan migrants have returned during the pandemic, despite mobility restrictions and border closures. And traversing the closed humanitarian corridor between these two options is a dangerous journey.
How Can We Help?
Although this post has focused predominantly on migrant and refugee populations in Colombia, marginalized communities are being disproportionately affected by COVID-19 all over the world. And migrant and refugee populations are being affected right at home, in the U.S. But what can we do? While my broader academic project tackles the one-size-fits-all international approach to pandemics on a macro level, offering ideas about a novel approach to global health emergencies, there are simple action items that willing and able Harvard community members can take to help out in their own neighborhoods.
- Raise awareness and offer assistance.
Elevate the voices of some of the great Colombian organizations doing work to help combat hunger, xenophobia, recruitment, and more in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. Some organizations might also have need for pro bono assistance.
- Caminantes Tricolor contributes humanitarian aid to Venezuelan migrants, including through working to guarantee access to healthcare, education, and work.
- Dejusticia promotes social justice and human rights in Colombia and the Global South through producing rigorous studies and fact-based policy proposals; carrying out effective advocacy campaigns or litigating in the most impactful forums; and designing and delivering education and capacity-building programs. Dejusticia has published policy briefings regarding the human rights impact of COVID-19 in Colombia.
- Fundación Karisma seeks to respond to the threats and opportunities that technological advances pose to the exercise of human rights. In the context of COVID-19, Karisma has focused significantly on contact tracing apps.
- Fundación Lüvo seeks to evaluate actions in community, academic and business spheres, aiming to propose new pedagogical perspectives and feminist and anti-racist policies. Fundación Lüvo has published a number of decolonial and feminist policy briefs regarding the effect of the pandemic in Colombia.
- Organización Internactional para las Migraciones, the IOM mission in Colombia, works to provide technical assistance to the Colombian government in implementing projects that support all types of migrant populations in Colombia.
- Somos Panas Colombia, a campaign of the UN Refugee Agency, works against xenophobia and inspires solidarity with the Venezuelan migrant and refugee populations in Colombia.
In the United States:
- Help support migrants, the undocumented, and domestic workers.
Donate to relief funds for the undocumented; support domestic workers with paid time off, insurance, and emergency assistance during the pandemic.
- Alia supports domestic workers (house cleaners, nannies, and care givers) by facilitating client contributions to benefit funds for paid time off, accident insurance, and life insurance.
- For Greater Boston specific donations, the Boston Foundation COVID-19 Response Fund has collated its list of grantees here.
- The Coronavirus Care Fund (CCF) provides emergency assistance to qualifying home care workers, nannies, and house cleaners experiencing financial hardship during the pandemic.
- Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees (GCIR) has compiled a list of COVID-19 immigrant response funds that can be found here.
- Help reduce food insecurity.
Donate to your local food bank; assist the less mobile or particularly vulnerable in the procurement of groceries; assist your local food bank.
- Feeding America has a resource for locating the food banks in its network nearest you; see here. It also has a resource for locating local volunteering opportunities at food banks; see here.
- COVID Mutual Aid U.S.A. is a volunteer collective that supports community mutual aid collectives. Find your local mutual aid group through its mutual aid map found here.
- Donate blood and/or plasma.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused unprecedented challenges to the U.S. blood supply, and convalescent plasma is currently being investigated to treat COVID-19. The FDA encourages those who are healthy and interested to donate blood during this time. If you are eligible to donate blood and have recovered from COVID-19, you are encouraged to donate plasma.
- To learn more about donating convalescent plasma, see here.
- For additional resources, and to find the site for blood or plasma donation nearest you, see the following:
- AABB (blood bank information; plasma-specific information)
- America’s Blood Centers
- American Red Cross (blood bank information; plasma-specific information)
- Armed Services Blood Program
- Blood Centers of America
- CoVIg-19 Plasma Alliance (plasma-specific information)
- National COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma Project (plasma-specific information)
- Plasma Protein Therapeutics Association (plasma-specific information)
- The Fight Is In Us (plasma-specific information)
- Join your local Medical Reserve Corps.
Assist with community outreach, patient testing and monitoring, contact tracing, hospital support, construction of PPE, and more—even without a healthcare background.
- The Medical Reserve Corps is a nationwide network of locally-organized volunteers—both medical and non-medical—who help with emergency response when state and local authorities are at capacity. Look into local volunteering opportunities here.
- Support mental health.
Mental health is just as important as physical health. Understandably, COVID-19 is a time of great stress for us all. Support those struggling with mental health through volunteering as a crisis counselor.
- Crisis Text Line provides free, 24/7 support for those in crisis, and trains volunteers to help provide such support. For more information about volunteering as a crisis counselor, see here.
- Mental Health America (MHA) works to address the needs of those living with mental illness and to promote the mental health of everyone. For your local MHA affiliate, see here.
Together, we can help mitigate the adverse effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the most marginalized among us. To achieve a more equitable world, in which the weakest are treated as important as the strong—in line with fundamental principles of international human rights law, medical ethics, and bioethics—we must make a few integral changes to the ethnocentric status quo. These are some simple ways to make a start.