New York – “It’s hard to find the words to express my debt,” the ordinarily garrulous British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said as he emerged from a close encounter with death last month. His main debt, Johnson added, was to two nurses, “Jenny from New Zealand” and “Luis from Portugal,” who stayed at his bedside for 48 hours in an intensive care unit.
In recent weeks, doctors, nurses and care workers for the British National Health Service have garnered the kind of heartfelt respect and gratitude that New York City firefighters elicited after 9/11. In particular, immigrants, who are disproportionately represented among Britain’s caregivers, janitors, pharmacists, grocery employees, truck drivers, plumbers and electricians, mass transit operators, and teachers, are presently being hailed for their gritty sense of duty, for standing between many people and premature death.
Johnson was clearly trying to connect to this public mood. His New Zealander and Portuguese nurses are two of the tens of thousands of immigrants who serve in the NHS and who are also most exposed to the virus: The first 10 NHS doctors to die from the virus originally came from Bangladesh, Egypt, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Syria and Sudan.
At the same time, Johnson’s own posture before the coronavirus outbreak — he promised to “take back control” of Britain’s borders and to slash immigration — warns of potential dangers ahead. The pandemic is already encouraging far-right demagogues and movements to intensify their rhetoric against immigrants.
Xenophobia is globally rampant — aimed at Europeans, Africans and Americans in China, as well as Asian immigrants and their descendants in the West. Tight travel restrictions have been imposed around the world; some will persist after the crisis abates. In the U.S., President Donald Trump has temporarily halted the issuance of green cards, linking immigration, against almost all available research and data, to joblessness in his country.
There is no evidence either to connect the outbreak in Europe to the flow of asylum-seekers across the Mediterranean or through Turkey. Yet Hungary’s leader Viktor Orban has loudly conflated the pandemic with general mobility. “We are fighting,” he said recently, “a two-front war, one front is called migration, and the other one belongs to the coronavirus, there is a logical connection between the two, as both spread with movement.”
Such figures are clearly appealing to existing prejudices: Anti-immigration parties in Austria, Britain, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Sweden, Switzerland — actually, most of Europe — have scored notable electoral successes in recent years.
They are also building upon a long history. Immigration’s role in making the modern world has rarely been contested in the U.S. — a country, at least since the late 19th century, of immigrants. America’s economic and technological revolution and rise to global supremacy was powered by migrant workers from China, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Spain and Russia. Asian immigration from the 1960s onward helped cement the U.S. lead in technological innovation.
Parsis and Gujaratis in East Africa, Chinese in Malaysia and Indonesia, Indians in the Caribbean, Japanese in Peru and many other immigrant communities have long been active in the political and economic life of Asia, Africa and Latin America.
In contrast, amnesia and marginalization mark the history of immigration in Europe. Laborers from Belgium, Poland and Italy toiled in the fields and factories of France and Germany as these countries started to become more prosperous in the late 19th century. Within living memory, immigrants helped Europe recover from the ruins of its two civil wars.
West Germany, the former ground zero of racial supremacism, struck bilateral agreements with Italy, Turkey and Yugoslavia to recruit “guest workers” after World War II. Both France and Germany encouraged their colonial subjects in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean to bolster their much-depleted domestic labor forces; Irish nurses were crucial to the establishment of the NHS in Britain.
Neglected in national histories, these workers, savers, taxpayers and spenders made important economic contributions while enriching the continent’s social and cultural life — despite the fact that most of them were paid poorly, had few career prospects and were perennially besieged by hardened racial prejudice and suspicion.
Indeed, the centerpiece of Johnson’s own campaign for Brexit included a bright-red billboard that proclaimed (falsely), “Turkey (population 76 million) is joining the EU,” accompanied by an image of a trail of footsteps passing through a door resembling a British passport. The irony that the same rabble-rouser should now owe his life to immigrants is even more pungent considering that Johnson is the great-grandson of Ali Kemal, a minister in the Ottoman Empire.
The question now, as the world suffers through its biggest crisis since 1945, is how to ensure that gratitude rather than fear dominates attitudes toward migrants.
It’s possible that crisis management will monopolize almost all political energy and public attention, marginalizing those who deal exclusively in the politics of fear and loathing. The far right hasn’t made much progress in either Italy or Germany during this crisis. Those demagogues who are actually in charge, such as Trump and Orban, will have to work hard to relieve the strain on their country’s economies; they won’t be able to shift all blame to foreigners and outsiders.
Moreover, immigrants will be needed, yet again, to rebuild shattered economies. In fact, in aging societies from Japan to Portugal, they were urgently required to fill job vacancies and to broaden the tax base for public spending well before the pandemic erupted. According to the Berlin Institute for Population and Development, Germany will need half a million immigrants annually for the next 35 years to maintain its current funding for pensions and social services. The U.S. has forestalled such a demographic crisis largely because of continuing immigration, which could be threatened if Trump succeeds in institutionalizing anti-migrant curbs.
Even Japan, traditionally hostile to immigration, has been forced to accept a rising number of immigrants, in part so that the nation can take care of its elderly people. Almost all of Asia’s other prosperous nations also suffer from low and often falling birthrates. The existential challenge confronting them is unlikely to be met by a baby boom, even if one could be miraculously facilitated. Only new blood from elsewhere can keep their national economies fit as they cope with the fallout from the pandemic.
But focusing on the economic value of immigrants would not only leave them, as before, vulnerable to prejudice. It will also most likely lead to the repetition of a grotesque pattern: using immigrants to build modern economies and then abusing them when the latter falter.
The Gulf states look set to advance this ignoble tradition as they stigmatize their meagerly paid and ill-housed migrant workers. But Singapore offers a counterexample: There, by exposing the cruel living conditions of migrants, the virus has reshaped public opinion and shamed politicians into corrective action. As infections in worker dormitories surge, Singapore’s notably tough-minded government has vowed to act compassionately toward the indispensable people who toil ceaselessly if largely invisibly to create much of the city-state’s wealth.
In Britain, simple reality promises to overturn Johnson’s campaign promise to drastically restrict low-paid foreign workers. As it turns out, the country’s most crucial sectors today, from the NHS and home care to farming and food processing, depend on precisely the kind of workers Johnson had hoped to stop at the U.K.’s borders.
Shrinking public opposition to immigration in Britain, and Johnson’s own remarks, suggest that a newfound appreciation for immigrants is developing. Faced with death and deprivation, perhaps even hardened nativists will be forced to recognize the net contribution — to cultural and economic, as well as physical health — that newcomers make to their societies.
Fighting for re-election, Trump will no doubt do what he has always done: demonize immigrants and foreigners. Still, there is some hope to be drawn from banks and landlords that suspend debt and rent collections, prisons that release prisoners and other instances of a more caring world that have been seen in recent weeks.
Hopefully, the newborn feeling that we are all in this together can also quicken awareness that for too long workers in global markets have been reduced to commodities, to be traded on a market at the lowest possible price. What we have witnessed in recent years, without exploring in much detail, is a steady impoverishment of the working class in even the world’s richest countries. The process has been facilitated by nation-states surrendering more and more sovereignty to transnational institutions, such as the European Union, and global markets, and adopting policies, such as privatization, financialization and austerity, that restrict their scope of action.
The nation-state is now back, its rulers armed with greater power and authority and broader scope for political and economic experimentation than at any time since 1945. It remains to be seen if Johnson and his peers can eschew their cynical politics of the recent past and treat underpaid and undervalued workers — the class to which most immigrants belong — fairly and compassionately. Certainly, it is the only way to discharge the debt that Johnson and society owe to those who save other lives by endangering their own.
Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist.