A WORLD ON HOLD. Mobility restrictions as the second wave of Covid-19 begins

(Illustration: IO/Design Team)

IO – In March 2020, COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, threatening public health from one country to another, spreading around the world. This global health crisis imposes restrictions on human mobility, thus deteriorating progress in every sector of our society. Understanding public reaction to the virus and non-pharmaceutical interventions should be of great help to fight COVID-19 in a strategic manner. This article will discuss how the world is grinding to a halt because of the COVID-19 pandemic and how human mobility restrictions policy have adversely affected people around the world.

A world on“HOLD”

The “world” as referred to in this article means the free movement of humanity, blocked since the World Health Organizations (WHO) first confirmed the pandemic as having spread from Wuhan, China, back in December 2019. The terminology of “lockdowns” and “mobility restrictions” policies has been implemented by countries to stop the spread of viral infections. The lockdown policy has continued into 2021, and the campaign to wear masks, wash hands and maintain social distancing are today mandatory in almost in all the countries of the world.

Research published by Minha Lee et. al. in reputed international journals in November 2020 shows the research concluding that mobility of people in the U. S. has impeded spread of the pandemic, observed by all metrics. Government actions to declare a national emergency, with a rapid increase in COVID-19 cases, can be perceived as a significant stimulus to the increase in people staying at home and decrease in mobility.

Then, the public in the U.S. has been taking active responses, voluntarily staying home more, to the in-state confirmed cases while the stay-at-home mandates stabilize the staying-at-home population with a smaller range of fluctuation. In the context of people mobility, the research shows us the higher income group tends to travel a longer distance before the pandemic while the low-income group surpasses the trend afterward.

The research also calculates the higher income group tends to travel a longer both before and after the outbreak, the lower density rack up sustain higher miles traveled and lower out-of-country trip rates, with no metrics exchanging trends between two density groups.

In the context of Work from Home (WFH), the studies finds that the WFH trends are consistent with the pandemic circumstances, which begin to increase around mid-March inducing a 25% increase of WFH employees by the first week of April compared to baseline in the U.S.

The researchers claims that the limitation of the study is that they examine a relatively early pandemic stage. Now with many more months to years into the pandemic from the study period, there could be an opportunity to find relationships between the continuous rise in confirmed cases and the plateau of human mobility restrictions policy and social distancing trends, as well as the periodic trends of social distancing even, after state reopening.

In addition, the research observed clear evidence on the people mobility restrictions policy and social distancing efforts; a rigorous modeling approach will be necessary to quantify the practices and to analyze potential reasons behind. Also, the researchers observation could be also integrated with pharmaceutical modeling research. While carefully suggesting the future research directions that can help the current and potential studies, the researchers anticipate the data-driven analysis will offer integrated insights on social mobility trends in a pandemic. In light of bringing empirical evidence to bear on how people behave during the pandemic, this study could benefit to raise public awareness and, consequently, reinforce the importance of human mobility restrictions policy and social distancing while assisting policymakers.

In the context of developed and less-developed coutnries, the research papers clearly did not correspond to the assesment based on the model used by researchers in the U.S. case study. But, based on the explanations above, we can generalize that the case study in the U.S. could be used as the benchmark with the other countries around the world. Most of the countries also do the same thing with human mobility restrictions policy in their states. But we need further studies to comprehensively compare between regions. The conclusion at this point is that the world is barely moving as the COVID-19 pandemic hits countries. For most of the people it is mandatory to stay at home as much as they can and the economic sector that runs the states should follow the current plans from government authorities and also WHO as the inter-state organization that initially declared the pandemic.

How mobility restrictions affect people

Human beings can naturally move freely from one to another place. But when a pandemic hits the world, all countries in the world face conditions that never happened before. Even though humans learn from the past, the current situation is not easy for all people. Almost one year after the pandemic announced by WHO, the global authority for public health and safety, we realize that the conditions are not temporary, ending up in a couple of months or years. In fact, all of the sectors in our society around the world cannot revert back as before the pandemic. The impact from the spread of the COVID-19 will be our reality and problems from time to times, now and in the future.

Various attempts have been made and in part still focus on overcoming the current impact, in the effort to suppress the deployment speed, which is known as flattening the curve. Several countries have announced its success; however, most are still fighting hard. Since March 2020, WHO declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, which refers to the spread of disease thought to infect from person to person easily and quickly, as well as happening relentlessly in various regions.

Seeing development trends being handled to date, predictions have started to emerge that this condition will last long. Some count months, others even refer to years. Thus, although it was an emergency that had been seen as temporary, it will be soon become a new necessity or normal or the new normal. Even though almost all attention is on handling the impact, we need to start thinking about the new normal as to what needs to be anticipated. The problem gets more complex because of a number of aspects that are still very dynamic and unpredictable. Available data too is very limited and constantly changing. Hence, the discussion about the new normal needs to be done specifically about certain fields, with priority on the most affected areas or areas that are potentially raising problems further, which may have been greater.

Research articles from Sulvia Yazid and Liliana Dea Jovita Lie from Indonesia shape the ideas of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic towards human mobility in Southeast Asian regions. The articles focus on the issue of human mobility, an issue that was normal in the old has become a complex global issue, involving so many actors, and its solution requires a concerted effort which is often difficult to work out. Almost all countries in the world face issues related to human mobility; however, the number of countries that have committed to contributing to the settlement still immensely limited, or even tends to decrease. Even the last global effort of the United Nations, the Global Compact for Migration is also non-legally binding, cannot get full support from U.S., Australia or countries in Europe.

Human mobility is one factor that contributes to accelerating the spread of the COVID-19 virus. In China, until January 23 2020 before Wuhan established a lockdown most reports regarding the initial cases of COVID-19 came from Hubei Province (81% of cases at that time), while the majority of cases reported occurred outside the City of Wuhan generally related to the travel history of the city. The time it takes for symptoms to appear and be identified in a person infected with Covid-19 provides an opportunity for the virus to transmit from one person to many other people in different locations. As a result, this virus spreads quickly to various other countries.

Therefore, the discussion about the impact of the pandemic towards human mobility is interesting, because on the one hand human mobility has been one of the main triggers of the occurrence of this pandemic. Meanwhile, on the other hand, once the virus spreads very widely, the impact immediately a trend towards reversed mobility is visible at first sight, in where there is a return of temporary migrants to their areas of origin and second, mobility limitation in the form of restriction or termination, which then impacts other fields, such as transportation, tourism, and the economy.

In other words, if at first it is human mobility that triggers a pandemic, a circle of influence that occurred immediately causing a pandemic finally changes patterns of human mobility itself. As a precautionary measure to prevent and slow down the trend of the spread of Covid-19, based on the WHO report of April 11, 2020, as many as 167 countries have implemented additional steps through various policies which focus on limiting people’s mobility. The policies include restrictions on the entry of people from countries affected by Covid-19, flight suspension, visa restrictions, border closings, and quarantines.

The implementation of these various policies could disrupt human mobility at regional and international levels. Meanwhile, at the domestic level, governments in various countries have also started implementing lockdown policies which also focus on limiting the space for the peoples to move. An important question that arises is what kind of mobility restriction policy was issued and what impacts have been and may arise as a result of these restrictions.

Human mobility in Southeast Asian regions

Human mobility is a central topic in this era of globalization. Progress on information technology, communication, as well transportation, makes human mobility very easy and difficult to contain. The community then flocks to move around with a variety goals, ranging from tourism, seeking work, education, looking for a new place to live. Mobility can occur at local, regional and international levels.

In the Southeast Asian region, there are major issues related to human mobility in the last few years. First is an issue concerning the ASEAN Economic Community (MEA): one of the important elements emphasized in the MEA is the free flow of skilled labor between ASEAN member states. In practice, the flow of migrant workers in the domestic sector is still sufficient to be dominant, while the second issue is an issue about refugee movement in Southeast Asia, of which most are Rohingya refugees.

The pattern of intra-ASEAN migration in 1995-2015 is mostly in the bilateral scope of work between the home country and the host country. Initiatives from all ASEAN countries have recently seen the establishment of the MEA in December 2015. Migration patterns also changed. Previously, the majority of intra-ASEAN migrant workers were dominated by workers in the agriculture, industry, and domestic services sectors. Under MEA cooperation, the mobility of workers also increasingly focused on workers with skills.

Regarding forced migrant mobility, Southeast Asia region has faced at least two major refugee crises, that is the Indochina refugee crisis in the 1970s, and the refugee crisis of recent years involving the Rohingya ethnicity. The pinnacle of refugee movement in the late 1970s happened when the new Indochina regime took control over the Vietnamese, Khmer and Laos. Thailand was the country most affected due to the large flow of refugees who came in. Other Southeast Asian countries also became a destination for refugees at that time: Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Meanwhile, within the last decade, the majority of refugees moving in the Southeast Asian region is dominated by Rohingya refugees. Rohingya ethnic oppression in Myanmar is increasing the number of refugees. Most of the Rohingya refugees make Bangladesh their main goal. A small portion of them later returned from Bangladesh to Southeast Asian countries, such as Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia.

Social Restriction Policy

The existence of t h e COVID-19 pandemic made human mobility in the Southeast Asian region very limited. Moreover, with numbers of COVID-19 sufferers increasing in the area, it was predicted that the Southeast Asia area could become a hotspot for COVID-19. As a measure of anticipation, various policies have been implemented, including interaction restrictions, movement restrictions and termination of operation of land transportation modes, by sea and air. The following is a further explanation on efforts to deal with COVID-19 in Southeast Asia, by taking an example of the four ASEAN countries currently with the most COVID-19 cases.

There are several policies issued by the Indonesian government, start from border closings and entry restrictions, large-scale social restrictions (PSBB), up to a prohibition of going home. Implementation of this policy can suppress the spread of COVID-19, if done properly. However, there are no strict sanctions for those who ignore the existing regulations. As a result, existing policies are seen as ineffective.

Not much different from Indonesia, the Malaysian government also exercises border controls, as well as social distancing policies called the movement control order (MCO). The implementation of policy in Malaysia can be said more effective than Indonesia due to sanctions in the form of fines for those who transgress.

However, the policy making tends to prioritize interests Malaysian citizens and put aside interests of migrant workers as well as refugees coming to Malaysia. Policy issues against migrant workers are crucial when speaking about Malaysia because until recently Malaysia has been one of the main destination countries of migrant workers in Southeast Asia, documented or undocumented. Related this, on April 22, 2020, the Department of Immigration suspended all operations covering violations of the law during the MCO term although still there are other issues that need attention related to migrant workers. Implementation of MCO policies makes migrant workers in Malaysia threatened, both by economic threats due to termination of employment (especially for daily workers who cannot work because of MCO), as well as health threats due to access which is limited to tests and health facilities.

Not only migrant workers: Malaysia is also one of the destination countries for Rohingya refugees. Fear of spreading COVID-19, the Malaysian government intercepted a ship estimated to contain 200 Rohingya refugees and stopped it from entering Malaysian waters. Decree of the Malaysian government has been criticized by Human Rights International and Amnesty International.

Singapore has also closed borders for short-term visitors, as well as the so-called social restrictions circuit breaker, until June 1, 2020. The term circuit breaker refers to a call to stay on home to break the COVID-19 transmission chain in society, which includes appeals to stay at home, conduct teaching and learning activities online, control access to areas prone to crowds, such as markets, the close of most workplaces, and implement additional security rules at work where it is still operating. Just like Malaysia, the Singapore government has imposed fines for offenders; thus, implementing policies becomes more effective. Meanwhile, the Singapore government is also considering sidelining existing worker migrants. This can be seen from the spread the spread of the virus in overcrowded migrant workers’ dormitories in the last few weeks

Just like all three countries previously mentioned, the Philippines also has stipulated domestic and international flight cancellation, as well as social restrictions, until the end of April 2020. Implementation of the social restriction policy is centered on Luzon, the island with the largest population and the center of economic activity in Philippines. Not much different: social restrictions include an appeal to stay at home and only travel out to buy basic necessities, as well as medical purposes. Implementation of this policy was accompanied by a threat from President Duterte who will impose martial law if people do not comply with these regulations. President Duterte’s decision is viewed as excessive, and it will add to concerns for Filipinos.

In addition to the efforts of individual countries, joint efforts at the ASEAN level are also evident with the holding of a virtual summit meeting Especially for ASEAN Plus Three on Covid-19 on 14 April 2020. In the final declaration, it appears that the cooperation plan in ASEAN level is more focused on cooperation in the medical sector such as health information exchange, research collaboration and vaccine development, to administration medical equipment assistance as well as cooperation on economic sector. This summit did not touch upon or discuss cooperation that can be done related to the mobility restrictions imposed by each country. In fact, a policy coveringsuch mobility restrictions can have an effect on the movement of people in Southeast Asia, especially for migrant workers and refugees, who have been relying on the ease of existing mobility.

Impact on Southeast Asian Mobility

Closure of borders and social restrictions that have been enforced by a number of countries in ASEAN will certainly have a significant impact on various aspects of society. This will specifically address the impacts that are experienced by the two elements of society most vulnerable to the enforcement of related policies COVID-19, namely migrant workers and refugees.

The existence of social restrictions make most industry players close down production activities temporarily. This causes workers to be laid off, with the uncertainty of when or whether they would ever work again. This is going to be a big problem for daily workers in the nonessential sector, who cannot work as a result of social distancing. Policies that are considered more prioritizes citizens over foreign workers also reap polemic because of a lack of COVID-19 tests and health facilities provided by the government. Meanwhile, the mobility patterns of migrant workers are also experiencing changes as a result of these policies. The original migrant worker working in another country is now back in the country of origin is due to the closure of the workplace. This is what happened with the Philippines, which is the biggest supplier country for migrant workers. Thousands of Filipino migrant workers decided to go back, resulting in remittances received by the Philippines this year estimated to drop by 30% .

Another issue of concern is how the impact of the restriction policy affects the Rohingya refugees. For several years recently, the Rohingya people who experienced an oppression in Myanmar have been looking for protection from other countries, including to ASEAN countries such as Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. Amid the Covid-19 outbreak, Amnesty International has received reports that that there are at least three to five ships each estimated carrying hundreds of Rohingya refugees in sight off the coast of Malaysia and southern Thailand. The rejection of the entry of these ships creates new worries that Rohingya refugees will be trapped on ships in the middle of the ocean and cannot reach other countries because of border controls tightened even further. Hence, neither UNHCR nor IOM has confirmed that in even in the context of a pandemic, the prerogative countries to regulate the entry of foreigners to territory can’t be used to denying the right of people to seek asylum.

The Covid-19 pandemic resulted in changes in mobility patterns for communities around the world, including in Southeast Asian regions. As an attempt to flatten the curve, people are now being asked to carry out activities from home and not take any trip not required. So far these efforts are still considered the most effective effort.

The existence of social restrictions is expected to minimize the transmission of the Covid-19 virus from human to human. But on the other hand, handling that is more focused on residents of these respective countries make migrant workers and refugees as a group most vulnerable. Patterns of mobility of migrant workers and refugees also experience changes. The impact of COVID-19 shows the number of returning migrant workers to their country is increasing, meanwhile refugees are finding it increasingly difficult to find asylum protection.

It is not certain when a pandemic will occur; there is also concern about the new normal. Notwithstanding the circumstances moving back to normal after this pandemic, circumstances around the new normal will no longer be the same as the situation normal like before the pandemic happened. Lots of changes will certainly be faced by the public. Social restrictions cause many businesses to close will result in increased unemployment,  so  that  when  this pandemic ends, people needing jobs have increased in number. When reflected from the phenomenon of migration workforce in Southeast Asia, labor mobility migrants abroad are generally based on economic factors and a solution for the country is overcoming  unemployment problems. With current conditions, it can be said to be a problem whose solution had previously begun to be discovered; later it will return to the condition earlier or could even be worse than previously. Especially if you remember when borders are opening up, time is still needed so that people’s mobility will return to normal circumstances, especially with it fears of a new wave of transmission of Covid-19.

These things are what will become new challenges for the people of Southeast Asia, including the sustainability of the ASEAN economic community and handling refugee problems post-pandemic. Post-pandemic ASEAN connectivity must be reinforced; likewise with the provision of employment and making related policies refugees who need to be renewed. Therefore, more concrete efforts and cooperation are required than ASEAN countries, especially to anticipate the new normal that will be faced by the ASEAN community later. Most likely, including among them various restarting attempts in the region that has been running with reconstructing a cooperation platform area. (Achmad Zulfikar)

Achmad Zulfikar is founder and researcher of the Association of Indonesian Bachelor in International Relations (AIBIRs/PaSHII). He is active in the National and International Cooperations Mata Garuda LPDP, and also in the Association of Awardee of Indonesian Education Endowment Fund (LPDP), Ministry of Finance RI. He received a Bachelor of International Relations from Universitas Muhammadiyah Yogyakarta and a Master of Political Science from Universitas Hasanuddin. He also achieved a Master of Law degree from Universitas Muslim Indonesia.