For some commentators and politicians on the right, the coronavirus pandemic heralds the return of the nation-state. The gates have shut, much to the delight of right-wing populists. National borders are once again fortified barriers keeping foreign threats out and shielding the citizens within. National governments are taking the lead in fending for their own populations, while travel bans have grounded even the most jet-setting cosmopolitans and indefinitely stalled immigration flows.
"The need for borders is being vindicated by the pandemic," Laura Huhtasaari, a far-right Finnish member of the European Parliament, told the Los Angeles Times. "Globalism is collapsing."
With little evidence, ultranationalist Italian politician Matteo Salvini linked the arrival of the coronavirus to African migrants illegally crossing the Mediterranean and landing in Italy. And President Donald Trump, buffeted by a tanking economy and mounting criticism over his handling of the crisis, renewed his anti-immigration rhetoric Monday, implying border controls were necessary to stave off the crisis.
But away from the White House and Europe's capitals, there are others who can't count on the protection of their nation. For the approximately 70 million displaced people worldwide, the pandemic poses a double threat: Crammed refugee camps are especially vulnerable to the spread of disease, and national governments, which, at the best of times, have limited resources to spare for asylum seekers and migrants, will be even less inclined to expend them amid the crisis in support of noncitizens.
Aid agencies fear a looming disaster. "When the virus hits overcrowded settlements in places like Iran, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Greece, the consequences will be devastating," Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said last week. "There will also be carnage when the virus reaches parts of Syria, Yemen and Venezuela, where hospitals have been demolished and health systems have collapsed."
So far, there have been few confirmed positive cases, be it in the Rohingya camps on Bangladesh's border with Myanmar or Greece's dingy island encampments of marooned migrants. That's hardly cause for encouragement. Few of these settlements have the capacity for effective testing.
"It could create a false and dangerous sense of comfort," said Muhammad Hamid Zaman, a professor of biomedical engineering and international health at Boston University, to Foreign Policy. "Just because we don't have data doesn't mean the problem doesn't exist."
The problem could exist in a lot of beleaguered places - from Yemen, where millions are suffering from malnutrition and close to 4 million live in makeshift camps, to Libya, where locals and migrants cope with the chaos of a collapsed state locked in civil war, to Iraq, where 1.5 million people are still displaced in the aftermath of the battles against the Islamic State.
"War-shattered Syria is perhaps the biggest concern, particularly the northwest of the country where fighting continues between government forces and rebels despite a fragile cease-fire," my Washington Post colleagues reported. "Nearly 4 million people, most of them displaced from elsewhere in the country, are crammed into a sliver of territory along the Turkish border, which has surpassed Gaza as the most densely populated part of the Middle East."
And in Gaza, hemmed in by Israel, the risks are great. "If the virus reaches us, many people will die," said Mahmoud Shakshak, 65, an unemployed resident of a semi-permanent refugee camp in the blockaded territory, to The Post. "Not just because of the virus, but because the world will close to us and they will let us die alone."
Within Europe's borders, refugees and asylum seekers face an all the more precarious existence in the shadow of the pandemic. "The situation of exiled people is unspeakable: lack of accommodation, cold, humidity, stress, fatigue, crowding together in light tents, daily expulsion from places of life, deplorable sanitary conditions," wrote 24 French aid organizations in a letter addressed to the government last week, warning of the deplorable situation for many migrants in northern France.
But there's limited sympathy for them, now. "Refugees and migrants are often the first to be stigmatized and are often unjustifiably blamed for spreading viruses," noted the NRC. "We have seen some populist politicians across Europe who rail against migration and are attempting to draw a clear link between migrants and refugees and the outbreak, despite there being no evidence to support this."
The Trump administration also followed suit, invoking the outbreak to enact a new crackdown that would enable the administration to immediately turn away asylum seekers who appear at U.S. borders.
"The proposed new ban on asylum that would turn back asylum seekers will endanger the lives of even more refugees and further jeopardize our collective public health by sending people to live on the Mexican side of the border where they will lack adequate shelter and care and where there is no way to prevent the spread of coronavirus," wrote Yael Shacher of Refugees International.
Aid organizations are infuriated by the seeming indifference of national governments to the refugee plight. "How are you supposed to wash your hands regularly if you have no running water or soap?" asked Jonathan Whittall of Doctors Without Borders. "How can you implement 'social distancing' if you live in a slum or a refugee camp? How are you supposed to stop crossing borders if you are fleeing from war?"