As COVID-19 spread across the globe, many companies and expats had to seriously consider their situations. For many expats who were out on assignment, the decision to return home, to stay on assignment or to move to an alternative third country had to be debated. In many situations, it was not immediately clear where things were going and just how hard hit any one location would be. The constantly changing details made it challenging from a "duty of care" perspective to know how to move forward in the safest fashion.
In a recent survey of mobile employees who have had their mobility experience impacted by the coronavirus outbreak, conducted between May 13 and June 5 by Plus, it was international transfers and expatriates who felt the highest levels of stress and impact. While many factors contributed to the high stress and impact levels, the three challenges cited most often were the impact of stay-at-home, shelter-in-place and lockdown orders; trying to plan and coordinate travel; and immigration restrictions.
Mobility programs were challenged to stay on top of the information from around the world as outbreaks arose, travel and immigration restrictions were instituted, and best practices were being debated. Timing and decisions had huge impacts. One expatriate couple we interviewed was repatriating from Italy back to the U.S. at the onset of the pandemic and experienced the consequences of an early lockdown firsthand. They noted that “right when we got on the plane was the day they shut down the border from Italy to China. There was chaos at the airport. Once we landed, we realized that if we waited just one week, we would have been stuck in Italy this whole time.” They were also not required to quarantine upon arrival back to the United States, as that practice was not enforced until the following week.
As this below article notes, many expats made quick decisions to repatriate to home locations. For some, they had concerns about local medical infrastructures and the level of treatment they might receive if they contracted COVID-19. For others, knowing that travel lockdowns could keep them in place indefinitely, they decided to get out while they could. As the economic impact began taking hold, many saw the writing on the wall that their positions could be dramatically impacted.
In summary, while many countries are trying to open up some level of travel, the article explains that expat employees’ "benefits, including housing assistance and schooling allowances, had already been under assault. Now the coronavirus is adding another challenge" that will likely continue for some time.
Stuck in an apartment with a toddler and a newborn wasn’t Australian Nikki Martin’s dream of the exotic expat life. Like many in Singapore in late January, she was watching anxiously as daily coronavirus case numbers climbed. After seven years working in the city-state, and in the United Arab Emirates before that, there was a small window to leave, and she took it. “I packed a few suitcases, and that was it,” says the 37-year-old marketing executive. “Within 36 hours we were on a plane.”