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David HollenbachMay 13, 2020
Migrants wait to board a ferry to mainland Greece on March 20, 2020 at the port of Mytilene, on the island of Lesbos. (CNS photo/Elias Marcou, Reuters)

The Covid-19 crisis reveals the full force of unjust structures that place refugees and very poor people at great risk. It also shows the dangers of political discourse that emphasizes national interests to the exclusion of the world’s most vulnerable people. International responses to the Covid-19 crisis should prioritize greater social inclusion of very poor people and those who have been forcibly displaced.

The crisis also indicates that our obligations to the citizens of our own country must not negate our duties to global humanity. Active support for the poor and the displaced will be essential in longer-term efforts for a more just, more inclusive and healthier post-crisis world.

A ‘Coronavirus Catastrophe’?

The pandemic caused by the coronavirus has thus far had the greatest impact in Europe, North America and China. A high death toll has been accompanied by severe economic setbacks, including surging unemployment, sharp declines in income and the collapse of businesses. As the pandemic spreads to less-developed countries, its effects on the global poor (and in particular on refugees and other displaced peoples) will likely be even greater.

Today there are over 735 million people in the world living in extreme poverty. They are very vulnerable to the effects of the coronavirus. Refugees and other forcibly displaced people are the most vulnerable of all. Of the more than 70 million refugees and other forcibly displaced people in the world today, 84 percent are in developing countries and 33 percent are in the world’s poorest countries. These people are facing the possibility of a “coronavirus catastrophe” that could cause millions of deaths.

Extreme poverty or being a refugee makes a person especially vulnerable to the virus for several reasons:

  1. Many very poor and displaced people live in cramped informal settlements or camps that make social distancing impossible.
  2. They face malnutrition and other deprivations that make the virus more dangerous.
  3. They have minimal access to social services, including health care.
  4. Their access to reliable information about the disease and its spread is limited.
  5. The plight of children and the threat of gender-based violence are particular concerns among the poor and displaced.
  6. Humanitarian efforts are being disrupted both by the effects of the disease on agency workers and by the political instability and economic consequences of the pandemic.
  7. Some existing international support systems for the extremely poor and for forced migrants are being diverted to those affected by the pandemic in developed countries.

In light of these threats, the governments of richer countries and international financial institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund need to take strong action to prevent the Covid-19 crisis from increasing the suffering already caused by extreme poverty. Targeted assistance for refugees and the forcibly displaced is a high priority, as urgent appeals from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and international nongovernmental organizations indicate. Leading Catholic organizations, including Caritas Internationalis and Jesuit Refugee Service, are already acting and have called for additional assistance.

Today there are over 735 million people in the world living in extreme poverty. They are very vulnerable to the effects of the coronavirus. 

A Human Family in a Common Home

Support for the very poor, including refugees and people forcibly displaced amid the Covid-19 crisis, is both a global moral imperative and in the self-interest of better-off countries. Despite their responsibilities to their own citizens, developed countries have obligations to displaced people and the poor countries that host them.

There is also a practical element to assisting these vulnerable populations of the very poor and refugees. The virus does not recognize national borders. Extensive spread of the pandemic among the displaced and the very poor is very likely to accelerate its worldwide increase. By providing assistance to those who are especially vulnerable, wealthy countries will also be protecting themselves.

Catholic social thought, with its orientation to the common good both nationally and globally and its insistence that we share a common home across the earth, provides a persuasive way to combine legitimate national concerns with the imperative of global solidarity.

To be sure, each country has special responsibilities to its own citizens. The principle of subsidiarity affirms genuine duties to more proximate communities. But as early as 1931, Pope Pius XI stated in “Quadragesimo Anno” that when there is serious need at a greater distance and those nearby are unable to respond effectively, larger communities have a duty to take action.

In “Pacem in Terris” in 1963, Pope John XXIII further developed this line of thought, noting that “the fact that one is a citizen of a particular State does not detract in any way from his membership in the human family as a whole, nor from his citizenship in the world community.”

The unity of the human family relativizes the moral significance of national borders. At the Second Vatican Council in 1965, “Gaudium et Spes” emphasized this principle’s relevance for our obligations to poor countries and to refugees. In light of “the increasingly close ties of mutual dependence today between all the inhabitants and peoples of the earth,” the council called on the international community to “promote the general improvement of developing countries” and “to alleviate the distressing conditions in which refugees dispersed throughout the world find themselves.”

By providing assistance to those who are especially vulnerable, wealthy countries will also be protecting themselves.

In his 2019 message on the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, Pope Francis stressed the importance of global solidarity with the poor and marginalized, especially with forcibly displaced people. He also made a powerful moral case against policies that lead wealthy countries to neglect and exclude refugees. The pope warned against a “globalization of indifference” toward the most vulnerable people. In his words, “migrants, refugees, displaced persons and victims of trafficking have become emblems of exclusion.” He continued: “In addition to the hardships that their condition entails, they are often looked down upon and considered the source of all society’s ills. That attitude is an alarm bell warning of the moral decline we will face if we continue to give ground to the throwaway culture.” 

In the context of our common home, the way we treat migrants, refugees, the forcibly displaced and the very poor—at home and around the world—is a critical indicator of how committed we are to building just and inclusive societies.

By exposing the special vulnerability of the displaced and the very poor to health and humanitarian catastrophe (the consequences of which would not spare the wealthiest countries), the Covid-19 crisis has underscored the importance of global humanity as a moral frame of reference.

By exposing the special vulnerability of the displaced and the very poor to health and humanitarian catastrophe, the Covid-19 crisis has underscored the importance of global humanity as a moral frame of reference.

The Way Forward

The church can and should provide leadership in responding to the needs of refugees and very poor people who are facing the Covid-19 crisis. The Christian community is already responding to their needs through the important work of Catholic Relief Services, Jesuit Refugee Service, the broader Caritas Internationalis network and other agencies. These efforts need to be expanded, and increased financial support will be required to make this possible. Leadership by Catholic bishops, pastors and educators will also be essential. Such moral leadership could provide indispensable guidance on how to reconcile obligations to the citizens of one’s own country with obligations to global humanity. The church’s contribution could include providing guidance on how to address short-, medium- and long-term dimensions of the crisis.

Short term. Developed countries and international organizations should provide funds to enable developing countries and humanitarian organizations to acquire the medical supplies needed to treat those infected by the virus and to prevent the spread of infection to vulnerable displaced people and to others in extreme poverty. These supplies should include test equipment and personal protective equipment for medical staff. The response should address the growing hunger and even starvation that is rising in poor countries due to the loss of jobs and the restricted movement brought by the pandemic. In developed countries like the United States, Covid-19 testing and treatment should be available at no cost to the poor and the displaced regardless of their immigration status. Asylum seekers should be treated in ways that reduce their vulnerability to the coronavirus and provide them with screening and with treatment when needed.

Medium term. A major effort should be made to develop a vaccine against the virus and to finance its wide distribution in the poorer countries that host the majority of displaced people. Such a vaccine will be essential to preventing very large numbers of deaths due to the spread of Covid-19 among refugees and in both poorer and better-off countries. When a vaccine becomes available, it should be made fully available to poor and displaced people. Christians should support efforts to relieve the burden of the debts carried by poor countries so these countries can deal with the pandemic more effectively. They should also back the U.N. secretary general’s appeal for a worldwide cessation of conflict so that war does not further impede efforts to treat and prevent the spread of Covid-19, both in poor countries suffering from war and among persons forcibly displaced by conflict.

Long term. The Holy See and national bishops’ conferences should advocate a strong response by international agencies like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Food Program, and by national governments in the developed world, to the needs that make very poor countries especially vulnerable to the virus. They should call for strengthening the global refugee and migration regime and the wider humanitarian system that are in danger of being weakened by the economic and political consequences of the pandemic.

The Catholic tradition has a deep conviction that the common good is central to the justice that should shape social life.

The virus affects both those living in their own homes and those displaced as refugees or forced migrants. It endangers rich people in the Northern Hemisphere and those who are very poor in Southern regions; it is a shared harm, a “common bad” that threatens the entire human family. Alleviating this threat and preventing further harm will bring a common good—a good that is shared both within countries and globally across borders. The Catholic tradition has a deep conviction that the common good is central to the justice that should shape social life.

The Christian community should be a vigorous advocate for the global common good in the face of Covid-19’s severe threats to the poor and displaced. It should work to ensure that in the post-crisis future, poor people and refugees have a more just share in the common good than they do today.

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