The impact of COVID may make it difficult to attract immigrants compared to other G7 countries, making it difficult to meet the targets set for 2024.

Howard Ramos, Dan Hiebert and I have been looking at COVID-19 impact on immigration (my last monthly update can be found here:

One of the research questions we have is whether or not a country’s ability to manage or control COVID-19 will impact on its relative impact to potential immigrants. Out initial analysis is below, published in Policy Options (the updated slides can be found in the previous post):

Statistics tracking infections and deaths during the COVID pandemic show that Canada is faring better than all its G7 allies, save for Japan. Yet, it is doing far worse than the top five immigration source countries that it draws newcomers from. Canada cannot assume that it looks as attractive as it once did to newcomers, suggesting that it may be time to act proactively to meet ambitious immigration targets.

In October, Refugees and Citizenship Minister Marco Mendicino made an ambitious announcement to bring 1.2 million newcomers to the Canada over the next three years. If it the country has a shot at meeting those targets, it cannot not sit back and simply expect those numbers to happen.

Immigration is driven by a complex set of push and pull factors that incentivises migration. Put simply, source countries have attributes that make life look more attractive abroad and host countries have features that attract newcomers. For instance, a weak economy or poorer quality of life at home compared to good jobs and good health abroad.

The lingering impact of the COVID-induced downturn is flipping traditional push and pull factors on their head. In past economic downturns and recessions, for example, recent immigrants suffer the most and this means we need to consider the inequalities that might get triggered by returning to recent levels (340,000 in 2019) too quickly, which the federal government’s plan largely ignores. This is not to mention how Canada’s health care system looks compared to other countries in addressing the pandemic.

The statistics may weaken the perceptions of potential immigrants of Western public health, social welfare programs and quality of life advantages. Take for instance COVID-19 infections-per-million from July to January 2021 as an example. If you look at the top-five immigrant-source countries to Canada (India, China, Philippines, Nigeria and Pakistan) all have far lower rates of infection than the G7 which are among the countries that compete with Canada for newcomers.

Although there may be undercounting of COVID infections and deaths in non-Western countries, rates would have to be five or more times higher to change the trends we report here. We do not believe such issues are significant enough to change the overall picture that rates in G7 countries are among the highest in the world.

Rates of infection can be taken as a proxy of a number of factors. They reflect the strength of a country’s social welfare system, its healthcare system and the quality of life it can offer newcomers. Polling of immigrants to Canada time and time again show that quality of life is a reason people move to the country and it is also seen in polling on specific regions, such as Nova Scotia. Rates of infection put this all into question.

The situation is even more stark when looking at deaths-per-million over the same period in 2020. Again Canada’s top immigrant source countries all have lower rates of death compared to the G7. On this front, again, Canada tends to look better than its G7 allies. But when regions of the country are examined in more depth, Quebec has worse outcomes than other immigrant destinations and has some of the highest death rates in the world.

The degree to which Canada is to vaccinate may also become a factor, given its sluggish start compared to the UK and U.S. but higher than immigration source countries. Such statistics put into question whether traditional immigration destinations can offer the quality-of-life immigrants seek and this may change mix of the push and pull factors that drove migration before the pandemic.

The statistics put into question the ability of the West to offer strong public health and social welfare safety nets. Dampened perceptions of the West’s advantage will likely impact the speed at which countries recover from the pandemic, the pace at which they can get their economies back to speed and thus their relative attractiveness to immigrants.

In this context, the federal and provincial governments may well need to revise immigration targets downward, at least in 2021. The mix may also need to be revisited given that the economic immigration streams prioritize the higher skilled where one lesson from the pandemic is the essential nature of lower-skilled service jobs. At the same time, Canada’s attractiveness compared to the U.S. will likely decline under the Biden administration, which is of particular importance to the tech sector.

The government cannot take for granted that the push and pull factors that drove migration before COVID will remain the same in the new normal. Instead, Canada needs to act boldly and proactively if it has a chance to returning to being a key player in attracting newcomers.


About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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