Do governments use nationality to discriminate in the provision of social welfare during a pandemic?

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Most countries provide different degrees of access to social rights based on the nationality and immigration status of the recipient. In times of emergency, faced with the need to ensure public safety and constrained by resource scarcity, do governments use these criteria to discriminate in the provision of welfare? The public health emergency has certainly exacerbated the exclusion of certain groups of immigrants from public services, but some governments have adopted innovative measures to broaden social inclusion. From this perspective, the public health emergency has also provided a window of opportunity for implementing new policies that can potentially improve the situation of immigrants.

The distribution of rights during emergencies

Measures introduced to respond to emergencies can further the exclusion of communities that have less voice or power; but may also facilitate the social inclusion of disadvantaged groups. During the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic in Spain, for example, many Portuguese workers had to return to Portugal without any medical assistance from Spanish public officials. By contrast, the American Civil War (1861-1865) functioned as catalyst for the expansion of citizenship to African Americans. The general point is that governments can leverage emergency situations to extend or contract rights that are attached to different statuses.

Which of these dynamics, greater inclusiveness towards immigrants or greater restrictiveness, do we observe during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Discrimination against immigrants during the COVID-19 pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic is a textbook example of a public emergency. Starting in late 2019, governments adopted extraordinary policies: travel restrictions, evacuations, confinement in quarantines, as well as temporary public healthcare and cash transfer programmes. These measures have confronted governments with a dilemma concerning the jurisdiction over persons with different statuses and their “responsibility to protect” towards them.

Preliminary studies suggest that national citizens have been treated differently than immigrant populations. Indeed, there is ample evidence of discrimination against some groups of immigrants, sometimes fuelled by government officials calling the outbreak a “Chinese virus”. The pandemic also led many countries to introduce selective screening procedures at the border, laying bare differential treatment for nationals and immigrants.

Yet, there are other ways we can look at processes of immigrant inclusion and exclusion during the pandemic.

Emergency welfare policies during the COVID-19 pandemic

Economic responses to the pandemic are likely to dominate the political agenda for years to come. When comparing welfare measures introduced by governments to mitigate the negative social effects of the pandemic, there is little evidence of systematically discriminatory effects against immigrant communities.

This is not to say that all governments have taken socially inclusive measures towards immigrants. In South Africa, for example, businesses owned by asylum-seekers, refugees, and irregular migrants are excluded from the Business Relief Fund: those eligible must be 100% South African owned and at least 70% of employees must be South Africans. In Brazil, the government instituted a monthly emergency basic income that can be accessed through bank accounts. However, banks request proof of residency and people without legal status do not have accounts where the money could be deposited. These are two examples of social welfare measures that discriminate against some foreign nationals.

At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic also led to the approval of policies that expand the social rights available to certain groups of immigrants. Examples of such measures are facilitated status transition (e.g., the regularisation of undocumented workers approved in Italy in May 2020; the expedited naturalisation procedure launched in France in December 2020), the extension of services to different groups (e.g., the opening of the Irish COVID-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment to irregular immigrants), and the prolongation of visas, residence permits, and work permits (e.g., the automatic extension provided by many OECD countries).

These examples show that social protection policies adopted by national governments during the COVID-19 pandemic did not always reproduce hierarchies between national citizens and immigrants. On the contrary, in some countries the pandemic propelled innovative policies for the social inclusion of immigrant groups. In this context, the goal of inclusive measures towards immigrants is not necessarily solidarity, but the protection of public safety and the provision of efficient service management. Inclusive social policies during the pandemic are best understood as the result of pragmatic considerations.

Some of these policies would not have been possible outside of the public health emergency. Regularisations, for example, had been fought against by national and EU policymakers for many years; but the debate on essential workers brought to light the contradiction of classifying some people as ‘irregular’ and ‘essential’ at the same time.  The pandemic also opened new spaces for civil society associations to lobby, for example, for better conditions for irregular immigrants employed in the agricultural sector. Emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic represent an occasion to reconsider what policies are most appropriate to deal with immigrants who are already within the jurisdiction of a country.


The COVID-19 pandemic provided a window of opportunity for those who are in power to change the distribution of social rights both quickly and substantially. This led to conflicting tendencies. Some governments used the public health emergency as an opportunity to exclude groups of immigrants from welfare relief. In other countries, the pandemic propelled inclusive policies.

Measures adopted during the pandemic have been designed as temporary. It remains to be seen whether they will remain contingent to the public health emergency or facilitate the introduction of long-term, structural changes.