Blog post

Migration, welfare, WELLMIG, and the pandemic

The new coronavirus pandemic has changed all our lives, all our societies – globally and all at once, and it continues to do so in new and unpredictable ways.

By Marie Louise Seeberg

How it affects us depends who, and where, we are. At the moment, migration research or any other research that is not directly relevant to the pandemic may seem of little importance. Research projects that were started long before the pandemic and are by now almost complete may already seem obsolete. After all, how can knowledge about the old normal be relevant to the new normal?

A direct effect for the WELLMIG project is that we have, sadly, cancelled the final conference. Since this project was scheduled to end in 2020, our other remaining tasks that mostly have to do with writing can be done from our desks. However, for the questions and the people involved in the research, the implications reach further. In this post, I will attempt to outline a few of them.

Migration impossible

On Monday, March 16th 2020, Norway closed its borders. Before the pandemic, migration was never easy. For some, such as for the Philippine nurses, it was always restricted to those who were able to get a Norwegian visa. Getting a work-related or any other visa to Norway is now impossible. For others, such as nurses from Poland, migration took something of an effort, but was not hampered by formal restrictions. At the moment, moving to Norway from Poland is impossible, and many Filipino and Polish nurses will be “stuck” in Norway.

For Swedish nurses, the common Nordic labour market that was established decades ago meant that formally, migration up to now, and in a normal state of affairs, is facilitated and encouraged. Swedish nurses and other professional people have moved freely across our borders working and resting where they wanted, just as Norwegians have done the same in the opposite direction.

Although formally easy, even for Swedish nurses working in Norway can be a challenge. With the new restrictions, free movement across the border is no longer possible. According to a new regulation, on the one hand health workers are not allowed to leave Norway at all – but on the other hand an exception is made for cross-border employees. We do not yet know how this plays out for the Swedish nurses we have met.

Being a transnational family just got a lot harder

Being a transnational family, a family with members in two or several countries, is increasingly common and has become both easier and more widespread with globalization and migration. On-line communication has replaced the letters and telephone conversations of earlier times and made possible direct face-to-face communication with family across the globe. As everyone now has experienced, while this makes it easier to stay in touch, a video call does not replace a hug or a visit.

Perhaps the hardest part of being a transnational family is coping with illness and death, where hugs and visits may be the only consolation. When travel is not possible, and the pandemic means that a threat of illness and death is a real possibility, being a transnational family is hard indeed.

Nurses are needed, more than ever – everywhere

The Norwegian welfare state’s dependence on nurses from other countries was a point of departure for setting up the WELLMIG project in the first place. This premise relates to a broader understanding of immigrants as what is now suddenly known as “essential workers”: people who perform tasks that make a life and death difference.

According to a report from the Norwegian Directorate of Health, about 6% of all nurse full-time equivalent work in Norway is performed by nurses of foreign origin who were educated outside of Norway. This may not seem a lot, but for methodological reasons the number does not include a considerable number of Swedish nurses who work part-time in Norway, nor are nurses educated in the Philippines who are not (yet) authorized to work as nurses in Norway but are performing nursing related tasks as health workers or auxiliary nurses included.

In a pandemic, it is “all hands on deck” for the health professions, and local governments and other stakeholders are calling for a mobilization of all nursing reserves in the country. So far, the pandemic appears to be under control, or perhaps put on hold, in Norway. The authorities have not included “not-yet-authorized” nurses from abroad in their mobilization strategies, which up to now includes nurses working part-time and final-year nursing students. They do say that they will “continue to assess the need for any regulatory changes” if the situation becomes more critical.

To put it mildly: it will be interesting to see how this all develops.