With the restrictions on international travel caused by the pandemic, the African diaspora are restricted to the use of technology to strengthen relations with their homelands, using platforms such as Skype, Zoom and WhatsApp. Video calls and online house parties have become the new norm. Interestingly, the diaspora is realising that video calls are also adaptable for monitoring investments and following socio-cultural events in homelands.
At this stage it remains unclear whether air travel will ever be the same again, and whether the expected changes to air travel will affect engagement between the African diaspora and homeland communities.
On the one hand, the loss of revenue for many airlines heightens the fear of exorbitant ticket prices. Given that airlines will need to change the processes of air-travel, including decreasing the number of passengers or available seats, there is a higher chance that travel may become more expensive.
And on the other hand, the introduction of new business models by airlines, including the streamlining of operations and flying routes, might mean flight frequencies to some African countries are either reduced or suspended. Both scenarios pose a problem to the African diaspora, decreasing the possibility of travel to their homeland countries and communities.
Opportunity for meaningful exchange
COVID-19 continues to impact the African diaspora themselves with many losing their jobs or working reduced hours, leaving them unable to meet their own needs. Could this pandemic even lead to a rethinking of the traditional nature of the diaspora-homeland relationship – is it time for home countries to begin investing in their diaspora? Especially if you consider the higher death rates amongst ethnic minorities in the Global North, many of whom could be the bread winners of their wider families.
While the prospect of African governments providing financial assistance to the diaspora seems unlikely, the COVID-19 pandemic generates the impetus for a new kind of relationship, a broadening and deepening of engagement. This could include knowledge transfer, technology exchange, investment advisory services, and cultural transfer services. The active role of African governments in facilitating the return of some of their stranded citizens during the COVID-19 pandemic could be the foundation of a new two-sided, and even a multi-sided relationship with the African diaspora.
Useful expertise in crises
Beyond remittances and travel, the professional expertise of the diaspora has often proved useful in crisis situations. During the Ebola crisis, for example, some Sierra Leonean doctors and other health professionals returned home as volunteers.
During the current pandemic, while doctors may not be flying home, they are being engaged virtually, such as Ethiopian doctors and health experts in the United States who are being kept engaged through a live radio show.
While this effort to tap into the expertise of the African diaspora is not without contention, as some argue that the diaspora is far removed from the realities of its homeland communities, COVID-19 has illustrated the potential for African countries to access the knowledge of their transnational citizens. This could be a key element in efforts to address the service gaps in homeland countries. It remains unclear if these relationships will be scaled up or sustained over the long-term, or whether they will be one-off engagements.
Future diaspora-homeland relationships
While the diaspora continues to engage with homeland countries and communities in many different ways, COVID-19 presents new opportunities and challenges.