As coronavirus spreads, so does the brain drain

by Sasha Alyson

Colonialism has always been about those with power extracting whatever they want from those with less. Only the details change.

Once they wanted gold, spices, and human beings. They took them with guns. They still want certain human beings, but economic power has replaced guns. Two recent stories in the New York Times offer an example.

Samantha Power, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, writes:

Covid-19 is poised to tear through poor, displaced and conflict-affected communities around the world…. The U.S. health system is utterly overwhelmed — yet we have 26 doctors for every 10,000 Americans. In Africa, where 1.3 billion people live and the virus has arrived, countries average fewer than three doctors per 10,000.”(1)

Another story looks at the situation from a different angle:

Eight U.K. Doctors Died From Coronavirus. All Were Immigrants.

LONDON — The eight men moved to Britain from different corners of its former empire, all of them doctors or doctors-to-be…. Now their names have become stacked atop a grim list: the first, and so far only, doctors publicly reported to have died after catching the coronavirus in Britain’s aching National Health Service. For a country ripped apart in recent years by Brexit and the anti-immigrant movement that birthed it, the deaths of the eight doctors — from Egypt, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Sudan — attest to the extraordinary dependence of Britain’s treasured health service on workers from abroad.

It is a story tinged with racism, as white, British doctors have largely dominated the prestigious disciplines while foreign doctors have typically found work in places and practices that are apparently putting them on the dangerous front lines of the coronavirus pandemic…. Britain is not the only country reckoning with its debt to foreign doctors…. In the United States, where immigrants make up more than a quarter of all doctors but often face long waits for green cards, New York and New Jersey have already cleared the way for graduates of overseas medical schools to suit up in the coronavirus response….

By recruiting foreign doctors, Britain saves the roughly $270,000 in taxpayer money that it costs to train doctors locally, a boon to a system that does not spend enough on medical education to staff its own hospitals. That effectively leaves Britain depending on the largess of countries with weaker health care systems to train its own work force. Even so, the doctors are hampered by thousands of dollars in annual visa fees and, on top of that, a $500 surcharge for using the very health service they work for.(2)

The doctors and health workers are often fleeing untenable conditions. It would be inhuman and unrealistic to insist that they should stay in situations with no infrastructure to support their work, while putting their families at risk. But the U.S. and the U.K. are not providing a safe haven for everyone who faces danger at home — only for those whose skills it wants, even as those skills are more desperately needed in the homeland.

Those home countries lose the very people they most need. One study found that skilled professionals emigrate from Africa at almost double the global rate.(3) Western powers should be helping their own youth to develop the skills that are needed, rather than raiding other countries in search of something cheaper.


1. This Won’t End for Anyone Until It Ends for Everyone, by Samantha Power, New York Times, 7 April 2020

2. Eight U.K. Doctors Died From Coronavirus. All Were Immigrants, by Benjamin Mueller, New York Times, 8 April 2020

3. Honest Accounts? The true story of Africa’s billion dollar losses, by Natalie Sharples, Tim Jones, and Catherine Martin. Curtis Research, Health Poverty Action et al., 2014. This extensively-documented report shows that what Africa loses to the West — through the brain drain, tax havens, illegal fishing and logging, and much else — is far greater than what it receives in aid.

Top photo: Doctor and patient in Madagascar by Docteur Ando (Creative Commons license CC-BY-SA-4.0)

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