Migrant and Refugee: the Weakest Side of the Pandemic

Rio de Janeiro, May 1, 2020 – The data indicates that “in the United States, cities with Brazilian and Hispanic migrants have 30% more deaths from COVID-19” (Cf. UOL Site, 04/19/2020). Also in the UK, death among ethnic minorities and immigrants has a higher number. The experts give three reasons: first, they are extracts from the population in an extremely precarious situation, both in terms of work/employment and housing. For this reason, they are subject to all kinds of exploitation, at the same time becoming more vulnerable in this tragic moment of contagion on a large scale. In a country that does not have a health system to protect the poorest, they are the first to suffer the consequences.

So, it is precisely among this population of immigrants and Afro-descendants that companies, generally subcontracted, recruit workers for the heaviest, most dangerous and underpaid services, with an emphasis in the area of public cleaning, public transportation, as well as domestic employment. Condemned to this type of work, it is evident that the eventuality of contact with the virus is much more likely. The eventual contamination associated with the chronic precariousness in which they live increases not only the risk of becoming ill but also of not resisting its lethal attack. The more severe the weakness, the greater the risk of death.

In summary, among immigrants, a significant portion is undocumented, followed by President Trump’s xenophobic policy, even before the COIVD-19 tragedy. The immediate risk of repatriation weighs on migrants. Now, in the eyes of the pandemic, they fear to seek the authorities and falling into the trap of prejudice, having to return to their country of origin, and sometimes being separated from their own children. The restrictions due to the pandemic, on the other hand, can be perpetuated. Among the migrants, some were found dead in their homes. From these three factors, it follows that the coronavirus ends up pushing those who are already on the brink of the abyss to the grave.

Once again, directly or indirectly, immigrants are part of the social group that ends up assuming the role of “scapegoat” in this health crisis. This expression, according to the French scientist René Girard, in the work Le buc emissaire (The Scapegoat), represents a common enemy, which must be identified, fought and eliminated, to guarantee the cohesion and the primitive order of the community. Among the faces that, since ancient times, the Middle Ages and modern times, have already suffered this fateful discrimination, we can historically mention lepers, madmen, unemployed, heretics, witches, Jews, communists, among others. Today, with the advance of the extreme right and populist nationalism, it tends to apply itself to the “other, different, and foreign.”

On the shoulders of the “scapegoat”, that is, today on the shoulders of migrants and refugees, it tends to be to blame for the socio-political disorder, natural disasters, or major pandemics. In other words, they constitute those who must die so that society can follow in the footsteps of “order and peace,” for the benefit of those who enjoy the socioeconomic and political system that accumulates wealth, on the one hand, and social exclusion, on the one other. This is what myths in the media and the government refer to as “getting back to normal” after the pandemic. What normality is this?

It’s the normality of a globalized economy that, through the myth of production at any price and frenetic consumption, extracts and exploits natural resources to exhaustion. As a result, it depletes forests, desertifies the soil, and pollutes air and water. Therefore, global warming makes “natural” catastrophes more severe, expelling millions of “climate refugees”. Or it’s the normality of capitalism that exploits human labor to the last drop of sweat, tears, and blood, with an immense contingent of people who, without roots, roam the world looking for rare and scarce crumbs. No, this normality is certainly not what we want. We are looking for an alternative, recreated, and caring society!

Fr. Alfredo J. Gonçalves, CS,
Vice President of the Pastoral Service for Migrants (SPM)