In the past months the world has witnessed a radical shift in how we experience mobility globally. As more countries in Europe and North America start to come out of some of the pandemic lockdown restrictions, it is time to think more closely about who gets to move and why. There has never been a better time to address the need to promote a greater level of mobility justice in the world.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought much of international air travel to a halt and has confined millions around the world to their homes. For perhaps the first time, many in Europe and North America, including the most privileged, have experienced what it feels to have one’s movements severely restricted in ways one could never have imagined: separated from loved ones, unable to travel or congregate – even for the purposes of mourning and burying the dead.
This period of ‘great immobility’ created by COVID-19 comes with some lessons that can be drawn upon to help shape our post-pandemic future. First, the experience of immobility should foster greater awareness and empathy for those around the world for whom immobility and travel restrictions are the norm and not the exception: those confined to spaces such as refugee camps; and those who are regularly denied visas to travel and are turned away at the borders of the US and Europe.
Second, the pandemic has drawn greater attention to global inequalities by turning the tables on the relationship between privilege and mobility. Global mobility regimes have privileged holders of passports in the Global North or those who can afford to purchase access to mobility. During the pandemic, however, immobility has become a privilege. At the frontlines of the crisis, essential workers, who are often the least well-paid in society, continued to move – travelling to work, ensuring the continuity of food supplies and other materials, or providing care for the sick and elderly.
Third, the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the essential role that international migration and cross-border mobility plays in the running of essential services and industries, including food supplies. In both post-Brexit Britain and Germany, governments were compelled to charter flights to bring in agricultural workers or to clear an airbridge for farm workers from Romania. The United States sought to facilitate visas for foreign-trained medical professionals and there has been a sudden acknowledgment of the key role that migrants play in sustaining national health care systems and other services. These disparities in mobility during the pandemic raise multiple ethical and policy questions around structural inequalities, such as why there have been more COVID-19 deaths amongst migrant and BAME health and transport workers in the United Kingdom, and what levels of risk are acceptable to some to secure essential services and food supplies for others.
The experience of the pandemic thus opens up a myriad of issues about how mobility is managed. Confronted with new experiences of immobility and confinement, but also with the realization of how globally connected we are across borders, the current moment provides an opportunity to rethink issues of mobility justice – in other words, who gets to move and why. For example, the wide-ranging travel restrictions that were enacted so quickly in order to save lives powerfully illustrate what could be done in order to help reduce global carbon emissions, if only there were the political will to do so. With governments around the world having implemented high-cost bailout policies to save national economies, the realm of the politically possible has suddenly been extended.
Now is the time to consider the relationship between mobility and global inequality. Do we want to return to a world in which the wealthy have an almost unlimited ability to travel globally, while many of the poorest in the world face severe barriers to cross-border movement, even though in many cases movement may be absolutely essential to their very survival? This involves rethinking national border, immigration and visa regimes, but also the desirability and ethics of pre-lockdown levels of air travel and tourism.
Simultaneously lessening and increasing restrictions on cross-border mobility – with the overall aim of remedying the vast global disparities that exist between those who can move and those who cannot – would lead to more just, equitable and sustainable post-lockdown forms of mobility.