South Asian countries scramble to vaccinate outbound workers to safeguard remittances

The pandemic has been a blow to countries like Bangladesh, Nepal, and Pakistan as all of them receive billions of dollars annually through remittances of migrant workers abroad

Shraddha Nand Bhatnagar Jul 27, 2021
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Migrant workers

The pandemic has been a blow to countries like Bangladesh, Nepal, and Pakistan as all of them receive billions of dollars annually through remittances of migrant workers abroad. However, lately, many popular work destinations, especially in the Gulf,  have made vaccination compulsory for these jobs, putting thousands of workers of these countries - where vaccination is at a slow pace - at risk of losing their jobs. 

Barring India, which is locally producing two vaccines and suspended its exports, hitting countries like Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka hard, all these countries are facing a shortage of vaccines. 

Bangladesh, for example, which is facing a lot of vaccine hesitancy, has so far fully vaccinated only a little over percent of its total population;  with 1 percent receiving a single dose. In Nepal, nearly 5 percent are fully vaccinated, and about 7 percent are partially vaccinated.  Around 3 percent of people are fully vaccinated in Pakistan. India, which is a little ahead of these countries, has vaccinated close to 7 percent of its 900 million eligible population with double dose and about 20 percent are partially vaccinated. 

Until very recently, all these countries had been focussing on early vaccination of only priority groups. The migrant laborers weren’t among them. However, as soon as major work destination countries put vaccination as the condition for getting their visas, only then countries in the region started vaccinating workers on priority. 

Remittances from these workers support their economies in a big way. 

For Nepal--which receives around $8 billion, which is close to one-fourth of total GDP, around 35000 outbound workers are stuck and unable to get their job papers cleared as there aren’t vaccinated. In 2020, the country received 8.12 billion in remittance--down from $8.25 billion it had received a year ago. This year, it is expected to decline further. 

This week only, the Nepali government decided to give the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine to those workers who are scheduled to fly abroad within a month. The US has recently donated 1.2 million Johnson & Johnson vaccines to Nepal. 

Bangladesh, which has over a million migrant workers abroad, had received around $21 billion--close to 6.7 percent of its GDP-- in remittance in 2020, an increase of around $1.6 billion in comparison to 2019. Though its remittances remained unaffected and in fact increased substantially-- due to the increased usage of formal channels for transfer, it remains at risk of losing the job market to others if the country doesn’t vaccinate its workers on time. 

Around 90,000 outbound workers are waiting for vaccines to fly abroad in Bangladesh. The government this week has lowered the age to 30 years for vaccination, which will cover most potential workers. However, it will still take months to vaccinate these groups as vaccines are in short supply. 

Similar to Bangladesh, remittances to Pakistan haven’t come down, and in fact, increased in 2020 for the same reason. Last year, it received $26 billion, which accounts for almost 10 percent of GDP. However, it also faces the same risk: losing the job market to other countries in the absence of vaccines. 

Furthermore, the Covid pandemic disrupted domestic job markets badly in these countries. The loss of jobs in informal sectors is in millions, and the return of thousands of workers, who had lost jobs abroad, further exacerbated the problem of unemployment. 

Earlier, barring Pakistan, most countries in the region relied on vaccines from India. In late April, when the deadly surge of the Covid-19 second wave hit India, New Delhi suddenly stopped the export of vaccines. Thereafter, these countries used mostly Chinese Sinopharm vaccines, with Beijing smartly stepping in to fill the Indian breach.

However, several countries, including major work destinations, have not recognized Sinopharm vaccines for their visas. And, this is complicating the problem for Bangladesh, Nepal, and Pakistan, where Sinopharm remained the most widely used vaccine. (SAM)