WE are in the darkness before dawn. There is hope: one, two and now three vaccine candidates have been found to be efficacious against the Covid-19 pandemic that has ravaged the world. Alas, the availability of the vaccine, close as it may be, has failed to curb the spread of the disease. Numbers are rising everywhere and the threat of new restrictions locally and globally is very real.
Among these are the new visa rules that were recently announced by the United Arab Emirates. According to the new directives, Pakistan is one of 11 countries whose citizens are now unable to obtain visitor visas to the UAE. This does not include those visitors who have already been granted a valid visa. The latter group can still travel to the UAE. While there was no explicit reason offered for the implementation of the new restrictions, the rising number of Covid-19 cases in all the countries subject to the restrictions suggests that the UAE has implemented this measure as a means to control the spread of Covid-19 within its borders.
It is likely that the UAE, like other countries that have border restrictions, will lift them once the vaccine is available and widely distributed. Many assume that once this particular coronavirus has been brought under control, the movement of people across borders and from one part of the globe will resume. Airports will be crowded once again, and students and workers and tourists, everyone who is waiting at the sidelines of the world’s momentous pause, will resume as before.
This is only partly true. According to a United Nations panel convened recently, pandemics are likely to become a common facet of our future. A recently released report on biodiversity and pandemics has concluded that insatiable consumption and destruction of habitats means that humans are likely to get sick from animal-borne viruses at a much higher rate than in previous years. It is estimated that there are 850,000 such viruses existing in animal species and that they could soon start hopping from animals to humans in the coming years. The majority of emerging diseases like Ebola and Zika, and a number of known diseases like influenza, HIV/AIDS and Covid-19, are all caused by microbes that are of animal origin. Mammals, especially primates, rodents and bats, have a particular ability to spread viruses, followed by some species of birds, like waterfowl.
As a labour-exporting country, Pakistan needs to pay attention to the emerging trends.
All this is to say that the matter of the next pandemic is not an issue of if but rather of when. It is only a matter of time, and some have predicted this time to be about three years, before a new, previously unknown disease hops from some animal to human and begins to kill people who have no immunity against it. This has huge implications for global labour mobility and visa regimes around the world. While visa regimes have been based in the past on admissibility requirements that often hinged on the needs of the hosting country, health may likely figure more prominently in the future. Those who migrate to work will be forced to remain where they are or be subject to restrictive quarantine procedures and similar measures. Health certifications required for visas will become very stringent.
As a labour-exporting country, Pakistan, and Pakistanis, need to pay attention to these emerging trends. Many students and young graduates around the country bank on being able to find a job abroad, whether in the Gulf states or in Australia, the United Kingdom or United States. In all of these cases, the ease of movement back and forth sustains remittance income as well as familial ties. This system of movement will likely face threats in an emerging future where disease proliferation is going to become an issue of serious concern for various countries. Borders, which have signalled national sovereignty, could well become frontiers that mark varying health regulations, varying restrictions on travel, mixing with other people, masks and so on.
There is good news, however. The inevitable proliferation of remote work that this new disease-inflicted world will produce will in turn create opportunities for graduates in places like Pakistan. With human contact in closed spaces (like offices) a source of disease spread, most work will be done remotely. This expands the market to include those who are in other countries and can perform tasks with just as much expertise. Gig-work, which has gained market share in Western labour, is likely to become even more common. Pakistanis who want to take advantage of this new mode of work should learn how to market themselves to Western companies who need consulting or other services on a piecemeal basis. Unlike permanent jobs, this form of work is subject to fewer employment restrictions and educational requirements.
Pakistan and Pakistanis should pay close attention to these new trends in disease proliferation and labour reconfiguration. One way to do this would be to analyse the areas of expertise that are increasingly reliant on gig-work and then see the possibilities of availing those opportunities. Pakistan’s Foreign Office can also play an important role by advocating that various countries that are currently labour importers open their markets to remote workers and gig workers in Pakistan. This would provide some much-needed harm alleviation, as there are repeated interruptions to global labour mobility from pandemics or other causes.
It would also be worthwhile for the Pakistani government, heavily reliant on remittances as it is, to consider how it could assist workers facing health-related visa restrictions. One way to do this would be to create internationally approved quarantine facilities that can house workers in isolation for a quarantine period, after which they can board special flights bound for places with health-based restrictions. If the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it is that the world can change in an instant, exposing vulnerabilities that were previously hidden. It is time that these lessons be put to use as the basis for preparing for the future.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, November 25th, 2020