STEMming brain drain in COVID-19 era  

Brain drain is likely to re-emerge as an important conflict of interest between source and recipient countries

By Binod Khadria
Published: Monday 04 May 2020
Source: Wikimedia Commons

On April 23, 2020, two of the world’s largest democracies — the United States and India — independently executed two separate legal orders that could have a profound impact on the ensuing novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic as well as the post-COVID-19 era. 

The Indian president signed an ordinance to amend a 123-year-old Epidemic Diseases Act and mandated deterrent punishment for any physical harm caused to healthcare workers.

Triggered by mob attacks on healthcare workers engaged in testing people for SARS-CoV-2 and implementing social distancing, the ordinance legalised punishment with a penalty between Rs 50,000 and Rs five lakh, along with non-bailable imprisonment from six months to seven years.

The United States president, as authorised under Section 212 (f) of the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act, signed an executive order to block the entry of categories of people deemed ‘detrimental’ to the country’s interests.

To protect American citizens from foreign competition for American jobs, the US order banned, for an initial period of 60 days, the filing and processing of new green card applications for immigrating into the US as legal permanent residents.

Whereas the Indian ordinance supported Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 3, which ‘ensures healthy lives and promotes well-being for all at all ages’, the US order prioritised SDG 8, which states: ‘Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all’.

Notably, the US order exempted foreign doctors, nurses, researchers and other healthcare workers and their dependents from the ban. The Indian Human Resources for Health (HRH) labouring to save human lives in the present pandemic are the common beneficiaries in both orders — of assured safety to their life and property in India and unrestricted access to health-sector employment in the US — both of which are akin to prioritising SDG 3.

As a major source country of migrant workers in the global south, India supplies a large workforce of medical professionals, students and trainees to other countries. As the largest destination country in the global north, the US receives migrants from all over the world, many of whom are HRH professionals.

Global imbalance

With their promulgation in the two major players in international migration paradigm, these legislations highlight the grim reality of global imbalance in the supply of skilled professionals, particularly in times of urgent need.

There are several long-standing factors behind this imbalance, such as the limited number of educational and training institutions, long gestation periods to create competencies and a shift in occupational hierarchies and career choices that favour corporate managerial jobs over HRH professions.

Another important reason that has evolved to become a major cause of this disparity is the growing segregation of factor-utilisation from factor-endowment of precious human capital.

This ‘brain drain’ used to be discussed and debated more prominently until the late 1990s, but was subsequently replaced with a neutralising ‘brain gain’ argument driven by the forces of 21st century globalisation like enhanced global mobility, compensatory remittances to source countries and a new focus on return migration.

Return migration was originally projected to benefit source countries, but the dominant effect was to allow destination countries to replace older migrant workers with younger generations and those educated in newer vintages of knowledge and skills.

Now, in the wake of the COVID-19, I suspect brain drain to re-emerge as an important conflict of interest between source and recipient countries, particularly in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), which include HRH.

Some people would argue that sooner or later, a potent COVID-19 vaccine would enable life to return to normalcy. Others suggest that even with the vaccine, life is bound to move to a ‘new normal’.

Stemming brain drain

Nevertheless, given the ensuing economic downturn the world over involving large-scale job losses, there would be a significant paradigm shift calling for fresh thinking on sharing scarce resources. If individual countries are left to themselves to introduce changes without international cohesion and coordination, conflicts of interest will resurface with renewed strength.

How to pre-empt such an escalation in this ‘talent war’ and stem brain drain?

While it may be too early to project changes in long-term trends of flows and stocks of international migration, a temporary reduction in cross-border mobility in the short-to-medium term is certainly expected.

New restrictions on travel, entry and stay imposed by countries and fear, cost and uncertainty amongst migrants and their families could trigger greater selectivity of their specialisation, nationality, gender and overall numbers in future migration policies. 

In the shortest run, this would skim the frontline HRH, primarily doctors and nurses required for life-saving interventions, that is, to conserve human capital.

But very soon, it would be logical to expect young professionals in the entire domain of STEM-fields to be in higher demand across the borders.

Ironically, because STEM professionals require dedicated training, the numbers of international students in these fields would swell. In addition, such demand would pose acute challenges for gaps in the health sector and care systems of countries of origin when they need them the most.

‘Talent war’

One vital question to be asked here would be: How could such brain drain be offset through sharing of STEM professionals and students among countries?

Competition to recruit international students in STEM fields has led to a talent war among the destination countries through ‘education fairs’, which are likely to cause long-term brain drain of future workers. One resource-sharing strategy would be to declare them a sixth ‘global common’ (others being the High Oceans, Atmosphere, Outer Space, Antarctica and the Internet) that can be equally used by all countries.

This would eventually replace the trinity of conflicts between countries — that of ‘Age, Wage and Vintage’ — to acquire migrants who possess advantages of younger age, lower wages bill (lesser pay, perks, pension) and latest vintage of knowledge, eventually turning them into tools of global complementarities, cooperation and partnership for global welfare.

The specific issue of mutual understanding to operationalise this between a destination and an origin country would lie in joint and collaborative education and training programmes, while furthering the true spirit of the Global Compact for Migration. Its objective 18 states: Invest in skills development and facilitate mutual recognition of skills, qualifications and competencies.

Here, the focus should be on joint investment in education and training of STEM workers and students and their quantum and scale being decided through analysis of demand and supply between the destination and origin countries.

I have previously vouched for innovative models of dual, multiple and global citizenship to create a pool of ‘global health-keeping force’ along the lines of the ‘UN Peace-keeping Force’ — readily accessible to a crisis-hit country.

This would be a far more effective strategy to combat brain drain of HRH than the often circumvented pleas by WHO and the HRH-deficient origin countries in Africa, Asia and the South Pacific for practicing ‘ethical recruitment’.

As cited in the UN-IOM’s just-published Red Book 2020 by the International Dialogue on Migration, I have argued in the favour of creating a ‘smart engagement’ of not only HRH, but a wider range of high-skilled STEM youth in global migration governance.

Global bodies need to prioritise stability in educational, career and migration choices of the youth, but now, these choices are precariously threatened by urgent necessities created by the current pandemic.

A significant step towards stemming the brain drain of medics, scientists and students would be to show exigency and declare STEM-youth as the sixth ‘global common’ to be equitably shared by all unilaterally yearning-to-survive countries in a pretending-to-be multilateral world.


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