COVID-19 is not the great equalizer some suggested it would be. Instead, its effects are unevenly distributed across society, hitting already vulnerable communities hardest. State-level data in the United States, for example, reveal that black Americans are more likely to be infected and die from COVID-19 than are white Americans. Citing evidence from past global health emergencies like the 2014 West Africa Ebola outbreak, researchers also note that women may be more likely to suffer a variety of harms due to COVID-19. Yet these differential effects are not often accounted for in government policy. And recommended public health measures, such as working from home, social distancing, and washing hands with soap and water, are simply not an option for many, both within the US and around the world, especially vulnerable refugees and internally displaced populations.
Beyond direct harm from the virus itself, the knock-on effects of policies intended to curb the spread of the virus can also be worse for those who are already vulnerable. Lockdowns may increase domestic violence; and diverting hospital resources towards COVID-19 (and away from other health services) may harm people who depend on those services. For example, some maternity services in Liberia have already had to temporarily shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic, which could have dire consequences in a country with one of the highest rates of maternal mortality. Around the world, the financial, social, and psychological effects of lockdowns disproportionately affect lower-income populations.
Another potential impact of the pandemic, which has received surprisingly little attention, is the increased risk of human trafficking. My research demonstrates a link between outbreaks and trafficking. Outbreaks, particularly major outbreaks like this one, are associated with many well-known trafficking risk factors—diversion of government resources away from anti-trafficking activities, decreased economic opportunity, increased inequality, social stigma, and weakened community and family ties. The 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa left thousands of orphans in its wake, who were at increased risk of exploitation. Guinea had trouble safely housing children who were victims of trafficking because many shelters run by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) closed due to the outbreak. We can expect similar dynamics to play out in many countries and communities around the world as a result of COVID-19.
Crystal-clear links between disease outbreaks and human trafficking are difficult to make, but research suggests that COVID-19 will likely amplify existing vulnerabilities to trafficking. Low-income, socially isolated communities in areas with limited state capacity will be most at risk. These include some of the world’s most vulnerable people: refugees and displaced persons, migrant communities, unaccompanied children, and individuals who have already been victims of trafficking.
Could widespread government lockdowns reduce the risk of human trafficking? Not necessarily. For one thing, lockdowns are not uniformly imposed, enforced, or complied with. In fact, those most at risk of trafficking may be least able to abide by lockdown orders. For example, domestic travel restrictions may be harder to impose and enforce in areas with lower state capacity; vulnerable groups are less likely to be able to follow lockdown orders because of financial necessity; and populations with low trust in government are less likely to comply with government issued public health guidelines. There is also evidence that virtual sexual exploitation has increased due to rising demand in areas under lockdown, yet online protections run by companies like Facebook may have decreased.
Not all vulnerable populations or individuals will be equally at risk of human trafficking. Some research shows that governments can actually ramp up anti-trafficking efforts after disasters because they are able to use the crisis to strengthen state capacity. Moreover, trafficking may not be the biggest risk vulnerable populations face as COVID-19 continues. More research is needed to understand how and under what conditions outbreaks increase vulnerability to trafficking, and how outbreaks interact with longer-term, underlying trafficking risk factors like poverty and poor governance, which also must be addressed.
Anti-trafficking organizations and those who work with vulnerable populations—including those primarily focused on outbreak response—should be aware that these groups may be at increased risk of trafficking as the outbreak progresses and then dissipates, and should consider incorporating prevention activities into their operations now. Funders should also consider adding trafficking prevention into their outbreak response portfolios.
Before this pandemic began, tens of millions of people were victims of trafficking. In 2019, the US State Department cited 24.9 million victims. COVID-19 is likely to increase the risk of trafficking for the most vulnerable. Disrupting this link requires a multi-pronged approach focused on research to better understand the mechanisms at work; systematic training in trafficking prevention for humanitarian organizations; and funding focused on supporting not only front-line work, but also underlying trafficking risk factors likely to result from—and be amplified by—COVID-19.
Catherine Z. Worsnop is an Assistant Professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. Her research focuses on global health security and global governance, specifically the World Health Organization, the international response to global health emergencies, and international cooperation in the areas of human trafficking and climate change.