Coronavirus: Boris Johnson was saved by migrants – let's never forget that

Those who are against immigration must recognise these so-called outsiders as their brothers and sisters, even when they do not put their lives on the line during a pandemic

In this handout photo issued by 10 Downing Street, Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks from 10 Downing Street praising NHS staff in a video message, after he was discharged from hospital a week after being admitted with persistent coronavirus symptoms, in London, Sunday, April 12, 2020. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is praising the National Health Service staff for saving his life in a video on Twitter after his discharge from St. Thomas’ Hospital in London. He said he did not have the words to properly thank the staff at NHS for “saving my life.” He lauded two nurses Johnson said stood by his bedside for 48 hours “when things could have gone either way.” (Pippa Fowles/10 Downing Street via AP)
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Concerns about immigration, valid or otherwise, have assumed high importance in political debate in many countries over the past 10 to 15 years.

Populists in Europe have warned that tidal waves of outsiders – they tend not to discriminate between immigrants and refugees – threaten the continent's historic culture. Many blame the Brexit vote on an underlying hostility towards non-white foreigners that found a voice, and even an element of respectability, through association with the campaign to leave the European Union. We all know about US President Donald Trump's infamous wall to keep people from Latin America out. Much of the rhetoric has been toxic and hateful.

But now the coronavirus is making starkly clear just how reliant on immigrants so many of us are.

Medical care is vital during this pandemic. So is the cultivation of food and its distribution through supermarkets. In many countries, these needs are filled disproportionately by immigrants: the former through the requirement to source sufficient qualified doctors and nurses, the latter because even in developing nations such as Malaysia there are low-paid jobs that locals would mostly rather not take.

We are all now aware that the foreign worker at the supermarket till, handling the cash and debit cards of hundreds of strangers a day, is very much on the frontline during this threat.

So were the first 10 doctors to die from the virus while working for Britain’s National Health Service: all originally came from abroad, from Bangladesh, Egypt, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Syria and Sudan.

The gratitude towards first responders as death tolls rise is palpable, not just in the UK but also in the US, where a quarter of these vital workers are “foreign born”, as Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and chief executive of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), which has welcomed more than 500,000 refugees and migrants in its 80-year history, tells me.

“In the US, immigrant workers are serving on the frontlines from healthcare and looking after patients, to agriculture and putting food on the table,” she says. Mrs Vignarajah, a senior adviser in the Obama administration, points out that immigrants have always made a similar contribution, “but the pandemic has brought into sharper relief the central role they have played".

Dr Amged El Hawrani, 55, an ear, nose and throat specialist, died in Leicester in central England on Saturday night. Family photo

This recognition is welcome, as is the move by Portugal’s government to grant all migrants and asylum seekers who have applied for immigration status full citizenship rights until the end of June, which means that they will have the same access to healthcare as permanent residents.

We must hope that such fellow feeling lasts; for it will be tested by the huge rise in unemployment that we are witnessing. We do not know what the extent of the devastation to businesses and families will be, but the landscape a few months from now is almost certain to be ripe for exploitation by rabble-rousers who claim that immigrants are "taking" jobs, hospital beds, handouts and housing from locals.

The evidence is actually to the contrary.

For instance, a 2018 study by Oxford Economics, a UK-based research and analysis consultancy, found that the migrants who arrived in the country in 2016 would make a total net positive contribution of £26.9 billion to the public finances over the entirety of their stays in the country.

Undocumented immigrants Cameroonian Florence irons home made protective facemasks for The Salvation Army (Armee du Salut) charitable organisation, in Paris, on April 6, 2020, on the twenty-first day of a strict lockdown in France to stop the spread of COVID-19 (novel coronavirus).  / AFP / JOEL SAGET

That may not necessarily convince people left in desperation and destitution by the ongoing economic catastrophe – there is a degree of correlation between those who are in the most perilous circumstances and their opposition to immigration – but the financial arguments for embracing newcomers have not been made loudly or consistently enough. That must change.

This is quite apart from the moral arguments – our surely self-evident obligation to our fellow man – and all the examples of people who would not be with us were it not for travel and immigration. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is the great-grandson of Ali Kemal, a minister in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire. If Ashok Varadkar had not moved from India to the UK in the 1960s, Ireland's Taoiseach, or Prime Minister, would not be his son Leo.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger gives a speech at an annual dinner for the National Committee on U.S. China Relations, Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019, in New York. (AP Photo/Robert Bumsted)

This applies particularly to America, a country built on immigration. Mr Trump’s mother emigrated from Scotland, and his paternal grandparents from Germany. At least three US secretaries of state, Madeleine Albright, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Henry Kissinger, were born abroad. So was LIRS’s Mrs Vignarajah. But, she says: “I fear some have forgotten who we are as a country and how we got here.”

Mrs Vignarajah thinks this is a time to "highlight the value" of immigrants. I – the son of an immigrant – agree. And so, it seems, does Prime Minister Johnson. On leaving hospital in London after being stricken by the virus, he praised the staff for saving his life, extending particular thanks to two nurses who "stood by my bedside for 48 hours when things could have gone either way".

They were "Jenny from New Zealand" and "Luis from Portugal", he said. It was notable where they were from, and Mr Johnson will have known exactly what he was signalling by letting the world know. It was not just a nod to the "Global Britain" he has been promoting for the UK's post-EU future. It was also a return to the liberal, cosmopolitan political stance Mr Johnson took when he was London's mayor. It was a very personal and prominent "thank you" to two immigrants and an affirmation of the conviction that immigration is in every way a force for good.

Two foreign-born workers helped save a world leader. They put their lives on the line for others – as so many immigrants are doing in country after country. Remember that when racist populists decry them as parasites. Sometimes they are our saviours. And even when they are not, we must recognise them as our brothers and sisters if our common humanity is to mean anything to us at all.

Sholto Byrnes is a commentator and consultant in Kuala Lumpur and a corresponding fellow of the Erasmus Forum