COVID-19, a problem or an opportunity for the Welcome project?
The digital transformations that the health crisis of Coronavirus has accelerated, place us in a new and more complex scenario. But at the same time is a scenario full of opportunities for the intelligent and personalized technologies that the Welcome project is designing and developing.
Toni Codina (iSocial Foundation), Barcelona,
The first year of the H2020 European Welcome project has inevitably been marked by the global outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Just a few days after the kick-off meeting of the project, which took place in Barcelona on February 11-13, 2020, the restrictions on mobility and population confinement were extended and generalized in a few weeks throughout the European continent. This forced many aspects of the project's work plans to be suddenly adapted to an unforeseen situation that had not been contemplated in the project's risk analyses. Although initially we had the feeling that that exceptionality would last a few months, the reality is that today the health crisis still persists and that, despite the fact that the exit from the tunnel is already visible, restrictions on mobility and face-to-face meetings can still be extended for many months of 2021.
Therefore, today it is inevitable to reflect on the impact of the pandemic on the Welcome Project. Almost 12 months later, the adaptations introduced in the working methodologies, have brought innovations and learning that will be worth incorporating once the pandemic ends? Will the reception and integration services of migrants and refugees be better or worse prepared after the health crisis to take advantage of the technological solutions developed by Welcome? Will the digital gap affecting the migrant and refugee population be reduced as a result of the transformations caused by COVID-19?
These and many other questions lie in wait for us. The technologies of intelligent conversational agents and immersive environments, which Welcome is developing, aim to offer personalized communication, education (including language learning) and cultural and social immersion to facilitate the reception and integration of migrants and refugees. These technologies will be easy to understand and handle and will act as specialized personal assistants for both the migrant community and the authorities that help them, but will they be more or less useful after the pandemic? Will they find a more or less receptive environment for their incorporation? Will they fit in with the new needs, expectations and requirements of the migrant and refugee population?
Over the past decade migration flows have increased in Europe and progress has been made to some extent in improving the integration of migrants in host countries. But some of these advances could be dissipated by the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic consequences. Issuance of new visas and permits in OECD countries plummeted by 46% in the first half of 2020, and by 72% in the second quarter. This is the biggest drop ever recorded. And there are strong signs that mobility will not return to its previous levels for some time. This is due to declining demand for labour, persistent and serious travel restrictions, as well as the widespread use of distance work among highly skilled workers and distance learning by students.
In addition, migrants and refugees face difficult times in the labour market. Much of the progress of the past decade in terms of employment rates among migrants and refugees has disappeared because of the pandemic. In all countries with available information, migrant and refugee unemployment increased more than among the native population. The largest increases in the case of migrants and refugees were observed in Canada, Spain, the United States, Norway and Sweden. In Sweden, almost 60% of the initial increase in unemployment was accounted for by immigrants and refugees. Migrants and refugees are highly exposed to the impacts of the pandemic on health, because of their work on the front line during the pandemic, but also to vulnerabilities related to, for example, housing conditions and poverty.
On the other hand, migrants and refugees are also more vulnerable to the accelerated digitalization of many areas of society. The boom in tele-assistance, telematic procedures, teleworking, tele-training and electronic administration have deepened the social exclusion of the groups and people most affected by the digital gap. Migrants and refugees face multiple obstacles that affect their access and use of technology: economic costs, instability, lower use of the PC, lack of learning opportunities, lack of knowledge of language, fear and feeling of inability, etc.
However, the digital transformation caused by the pandemic has not distinguished individuals or groups, and migrants and refugees have had to face these changes as well as the rest of the population, in many areas: administrative regularization, training, access to the labour market, access to housing, the relationship with social and health services, etc. According to some studies, due to the pandemic, 50% of the users of social services, among which there is a high percentage of immigrants, have been forced to carry out teletraining or teleworking, while before the pandemic less than 5% had had this experience. Therefore, to what extent has this acceleration of digitalization pushed the migrant and refugee population to adapt to this new scenario?
The organizations that will use the future Welcome technology, the reception and integration services of migrants and refugees of public administrations and NGOs, have also experienced a cataclysm because of the pandemic. While specialized staff had to be turned over to meet the needs of the pandemic, the rest of the services had to continue to function. And to do so, they have had to turn to a new formula of care: telematic assistance. In the city of Barcelona, the social services of the municipality have made in 2020 87% of all their attention by telephone. In Italy, the demand for telephone consultations has increased by 90% on fixed lines and by 40% on mobile. And in the health field, the rise of telemedicine has been parallel: in Spain one in three citizens has used telemedicine during the pandemic, in 73% of cases for consultations with the general practitioner. And in the United States, it is estimated that there has been an increase in telemedicine in 2020 by 80%, having multiplied tenfold in March-April.
In Catalonia, if before the pandemic 80% of the activity of the health system was face-to-face and the rest telematics, during the first wave the proportion was reversed and only 25% of the consultations were face-to-face. In October, this trend has been balanced with 43% of face-to-face consultations. According to the director of Catsalut, Adrià Comella "speaking with the primary care teams we concluded that, surely, when 80% was face-to-face and 20% telematic, it was not doing well”. It refers to many bureaucratic or administrative acts, such as a routine communication of clinical results, which were being done in person unnecessarily. “The idea is to go towards a mix where the presence is 50% or 60%”. In fact, and precisely thinking of strengthening the telematic assistance procedure, the plan to strengthen primary care promoted by the Catalan government contemplates incorporating 8,000 webcams to health centres, deploying an SMS platform and installing 3,000 laptops and 500 mobile phones, among other measures.
In the specific or general services needed and used by the immigrant population for their processes of arrival, rooting and social inclusion, this transformation has brought forth practices that were not in place, both at the organizational and technical levels, and have had such effective application that they have probably come to stay. The benefits are diverse: reduce the time of attention to people, reduce the unnecessary costs of travel of users, enhance open systems and self-management, or reduce bureaucracy. A study conducted by the American Medical Association (AMA) found that 75% of visits to doctors or emergency services could be effectively resolved by telephone or video conference. This has also been taken into account by the services providing care to the migrant population, and the migrants and refugees themselves. In a sector where, before the pandemic, the use of videoconferencing with migrants, refugees or other vulnerable groups was exceptional, and was even criticized in some contexts as a professional “bad practice”, the pandemic has managed to break many taboos of social professionals in the use of these and other technologies with the migrant and refugee population.
Therefore, it is appropriate to ask ourselves: what will happen after the COVID-19 crisis? In services related to the reception and integration of migrants and refugees, attention and face-to-face activity will surely return, but nothing will be the same. In information and guidance services, in administrative procedures, in legal support, in language courses, in occupational training, in housing services or in social and health care, there will no longer be excuses for requiring unnecessary travel, for restricted hours that interrupt people's lives, for administrative burdens that hinder people's social integration. But for this digital transformation not to be a mirage, this new operation based on intensive use of technology will have to be accessible and easy, requiring not only the proportional means required by legal certainty, but also articulating measures that reduce the digital divide and strengthen the digital competences of society as a whole. And the migrant and refugee population must also benefit from this collective effort, as part of a European society that will have taken up this challenge with the utmost ambition and responsibility.
Thus, the transformations caused by the COVID-19 health crisis place us in a new scenario that constitutes a huge source of opportunities for the intelligent technologies that the Welcome Project is designing and developing. In the environment of the reception and integration of migrants and refugees, which will undoubtedly be much more digitalized than we had anticipated before the pandemic, Welcome technologies will probably find social professionals, public and NGO services, and migrants and refugees much more receptive, motivated and prepared for a better use of the new intelligent and personalized digital solutions that Welcome will put at their disposal.
 TCN (Third Country Nationals) in the Welcome project terminology.
 Migration flows: Eastern, Central and Western routes, The European Council, November 2020.
 Impact of the digital gap in the foreign population, ACCEM, December 2018.
 Emerging social needs as a consequence of COVID19 and effect on the Social Services of the territory, iSocial Foundation, Barcelona, December 15, 2020.
 Social services have atended more than 56.000 people since the beginning of the pandemic, Barcelona City Council, October 25, 2020.
 Consultations in Catalan outpatient clinics grow by 36% in October due to the pandemic, EL PAÍS, November 18, 2020.