Expat covid

The impact of the pandemic on expats' plans and priorities

November 11, 2020

The lens through which we’ve viewed the world for so long has been shattered. The jolt of the global pandemic has shifted our priorities, disrupted our plans, and forced us to reconsider how we live and work.

For many of those living and working abroad, mobility issues, family pressures and difficulty in accessing health services have been acutely felt. This is evidenced by a recent survey of expats, commissioned by Allianz Care, showing that Covid-19 has impacted the future plans of 62% of those living and working abroad (notably, this figure was as high as 82% among respondents based in the UAE, and as low as 41% among respondents based in France).

Living abroad often brings its own set of challenges, not least being away from friends and family, language barriers and adjusting to new customs and cultures. Most people who decide to move abroad for work are resilient and robust enough to cope with these challenges. However, the pandemic has tested even the most hardy and flexible of citizens.


Travel restrictions

In recent months, travel bans restricted the movements of travellers, but, in many cases, citizens were permitted to return to their native countries. While this meant that holiday plans were simply cancelled for most people, many expats had to make a tough decision: travel home to visit loved ones, but face the possibility of not being able to return to their country of residence. Understandably, this caused upheaval among families living abroad and led to many family units spending time apart – spouses returned home with the children, while their partner stayed abroad to work. These arrangements have increased feelings of isolation during a period of already heightened stress.

For expats who decided to journey home, getting back was awkward and costly. Many countries have mandatory quarantines in place – self-isolation for two full weeks (often in expensive hotel rooms). I embarked on such a journey recently, and while a two-week break in a hotel sounds glamorous, the reality was anything but. I was cooped up in the same room all day, with one 45-minute visit (the time of which was assigned, not chosen) to the courtyard – with a mask on, alone. Meals delivered to the door, eaten off disposable plates with plastic cutlery and dumped into the waste. Now, imagine if you faced such a quarantine with young children, and you can appreciate why many expats decided against visiting home.



Xenophobia has become another concerning issue experienced by expats recently. When Wuhan was the pandemic’s epicentre, many Asian expats in western countries were on the receiving end of xenophobic behaviours; but, in more recent times, as cases of COVID-19 have increased in western countries, the shoe is on the other foot. I live in Thailand and have witnessed patrons swap seats in restaurants to get further away from me, and passers-by giving me much a wider berth than they would locals. Living in a foreign country, such discrimination can increase one’s anxiety and sense of alienation.


Access to healthcare

Since the pandemic broke, telemedicine’s advantages have never been more evident, with access to – and, indeed, often reluctance to seek – healthcare becoming topical. We have noticed a surge in the use of telemedicine and other digital health tools, with many people having decided against physically attending clinics and hospitals, fearful of contracting Covid-19. While these remote services are a great option for keeping up with prescriptions and regular check-ups, I am concerned for many older patients who may not be as familiar with the use of these tools and who are generally more at risk.

Currently, only certain illnesses and issues can be fully dealt with remotely, but telemedicine facilitates vital contact between patient and healthcare provider and enables recommendations on next steps and safe ways to get treatment. Sadly, I have already seen two patients who, despite experiencing serious symptoms of ill health several months ago, avoided attending hospital. This poses a huge risk to both the patients who go prolonged periods without presenting (and therefore without diagnosis and treatment), and to the hospitals that face being overburdened by these cases.

The Future

What happens over the coming months and years remains unclear, particularly for those people who live abroad or who had been hoping to relocate for work. Covid-19 has caused us to ‘reset’, and, consequently, many people no longer want to be far away from home or have ruled out moving to certain locations for fear of having to engage with inaccessible health services.

As we wait for an effective vaccine to be developed, authorised and administered, education and personal care are our best chances of halting the spread of Covid-19. Despite regulations differing among countries, we are all global citizens, all fighting the same crisis. With that comes personal responsibility to wear masks, keep safe distances and wash our hands.

This article first appeared in COVER magazine.