“The less we move, the more we can contain the virus”: How COVID-19 fundamentally alters understandings of mobility and the free movement of people

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Across the world, government responses to the COVID-19 crisis are leading to deep changes in our understanding of social reality. A particularly important change is that hundreds of millions of people around the world currently experience severe constraints on their mobility. While perhaps being an understandable response to the fear brought by a global pandemic, an associated representation of mobility as danger has negative implications in the long term. Physical distancing has proved to be necessary to prevent contagion. However, the measures to enforce it have framed mobility as a danger and as a problem, and have increased the inequalities of mobility. A tendency to see mobility as a problem prevents us from seeing it as part of the solution; closing borders and restricting mobility may be necessary as short-term emergency measures but it is important to consider that they can also  hinder efforts to deal with the pandemic while also having longer-term negative effects on mobility that are corrosive of freedom.

Mobility is one of the major resources of the 21st century that can involve the movement of people, objects, ideas, knowledge and technology. A key aspect of mobility is that access to it is differential: not everyone and everything can move in the same geographical areas, under the same conditions and at the same speed. This differentiated mobility creates hierarchies: some people and some things have more ‘right to move’ than others.

Mobility also lies at the heart of regional integration projects that bring states together to cooperate with each other. These projects vary greatly, but they share a common goal of  increased interaction that can include the exchange of objects, goods, ideas, knowledge, technology and, in some cases, people. Increasing mobility within a region means diminishing the internal borders between member-states. At their most ambitious, regional integration projects aim to liberalise the movement of persons and some have already done so.

A free movement regime expands access to mobility understood as a resource. For this reason, mobility is one of the main benefits that a regional integration project can provide to the people living within its borders. It is fully achieved when member-states of a regional integration project adopt common regulations on three dimensions: 1- the right to enter the territory of all the member-states; 2- the right to reside in the territory of all the member-states; and, 3- most ambitiously, the provision of common citizenship rights to the nationals of all the member-states. Responses to COVID-19 deeply challenge all these.

Narratives of mobility as progress and freedom are foundational for our modern times. Yet, political responses to COVID-19 centre on narratives of mobility as dangerous and as a threat, creating a link between the movement of people and the spread of the virus. The European Commission President, Ursula Von den Leyen, stated when the EU decided to close the external borders of Schengen: ‘the less we travel, the more we can contain the virus’. This link is further strengthened by the use of bellicose vocabulary to refer to the crisis and its possible solutions, which has become commonplace, even in academic circles. Following this narrative, even limited urban mobility became an irresponsible, even criminal act. Mobility within national borders becomes an act of selfishness towards the rest of the society.

Regional mobility in places where there are free movement frameworks such as in Europe is viewed as potentially dangerous. A wave of border closures are labelled as an emergency mechanism to respond to a threat. This international mobility becomes a threat to national security. Far-right politicians have (predictably) blamed migrants for the spread of COVID-19. This narrative of mobility as dangerous and as a threat has been used by governments to justify the adoption of extreme restrictions to international mobility, contradicting evidence-based advice by the WHO.

Restrictions on mobility are paradoxical: when adopted in the name of health and safety, they can worsen the situation. Physical distancing is the most recommended measure to avoid contagion. However, government measures and their consequences on have longer-term negative consequences. Suspension of the EU’s Schengen regime has led to delays health care products while export restrictions are endangering the supply of health care products to the most vulnerable areas of the world. A lack of migrant labour can lead to global food shortages. Restrictions on mobility can worsen the situation for the immobile and for vulnerable populations, such as migrants in detention camps and inhabitants of favelas. This exacerbates an already existing hierarchy of mobility as a resource that both includes and excludes.

Despite the current negative connotations, mobility as regional public good can be highly valued. In the EU, free movement of people enjoys broad support. In other regions with facilitated mobility regimes, such as South America, free residence rights have enabled three million people to obtain residence permits and acquire equal rights to nationals.

More than this, the exchange of knowledge enabled by connectivity, a consequence of mobility, at the global and regional levels has proven crucial in finding solutions to the COVID-19 crisis, as well as other recent health crises, such as Ebola. Regional level research can help to find faster and cheaper treatments for the disease.

As countries are interdependent with their regional neighbours, intra-regional migration is the most common pattern of human mobility and countries in regions generally face similar public policy challenges. It makes sense for them to look together for responses to the COVID-19 crisis. Regional cooperation and the adoption of regional policies in the area of health have already proved to be successful in some regions. Countries can coordinate the purchase of health care equipment for the entire region, as European and South American countries have attempted to do. This could prevent sub-optimal outcomes caused by competition between member states in regional organisations that is fostered by mobility restrictions.

As we must adapt to use of face masks as part of our clothing and to severe constraints on our personal mobility, there is a risk that mobility is seen not as progress and freedom but as a threat. When a narrative of mobility as a threat becomes internalized by large numbers of people, the adoption of longer-term restrictions to it can become commonplace. This can lead to a deep modification of regional free movement regimes at a time when the main source of the problem – a virus – has no borders and when global and regional coordination are much needed.

Mobility as a regional public good is not a threat when it increases connectivity, interaction and facilitates coordination in face of global and regional problems. Rather, it is a solution that is currently under threat.


Leiza Brumat Research Fellow, Migration Policy Centre, EUI


The EUI, RSCAS and MPC are not responsible for the opinion expressed by the author(s). Furthermore, the views expressed in this publication cannot in any circumstances be regarded as the official position of the European Union.