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Migrant workers rest on the pavement as they wait for trains to their home states in Hyderabad, India, on June 9, 2020.

Mahesh Kumar A/The Associated Press

We know about the dead, soon to number a million worldwide. But we have yet to become fully aware of the missing.

They probably number in the hundreds of millions. They have disappeared, without warning, from the cities of the world. We have no idea when they will return. Some have carried the disease with them.

While countries raced to shut their external borders, something unprecedented happened inside them. The COVID-19 pandemic has provoked what is likely the largest “reverse migration” – that is, a move from cities back to villages and rural areas – in modern history.

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This isn’t the urban-to-rural move you’ve been reading about – the one in which homeowners in big North American cities are supposedly moving to some place with a lawn. Real-estate data show this hasn’t really occurred.

Instead, this population movement is concentrated among the hundreds of millions who don’t own a home – those who live in dormitories or shared rooms or shacks, and who make up the lion’s share of labour in the world’s cities.

In India, experts are calling the vast exodus of poor urban labourers back to their originating villages – often hundreds of kilometres away – the largest mass internal migration since the one that followed Partition in 1947; more than 130 million migrant labourers live in India’s cities, and the World Bank has estimated that at least 40 million were affected in the first weeks alone.

Migrant workers line up to board buses in Dharavi, one of Asia's largest slums, in Mumbai, India, on May 22, 2020.

Rafiq Maqbool/The Associated Press

China’s 270 million villagers living in big cities return to their rural provinces every January for the lunar new year; this year, a huge proportion either didn’t head back to the cities after the celebrations or have been unable to do so, and many more fled the coronavirus lockdowns and restrictions. In Wuhan alone, about five million left for villages in advance of lockdown policies.

Major urban-to-rural exoduses have been recorded in Peru – where Lima alone saw more than 200,000 people trying to return to their family villages – and in Mexico and Brazil, where people have fled to home villages not just from big cities but from adjoining countries. Similar rural-flight movements have been reported in Uganda, South Africa, Kenya, Morocco, Ivory Coast, Gabon and Zimbabwe.

The total numbers are impossible to know – not just because few countries track internal migration, but because most of it was by stealth. Millions left the city either in the days before lockdowns and domestic travel restrictions, or in the months after those restrictions had made their lives difficult.

People have long fled to the country during epidemics, usually out of a misplaced belief that you’re safer there. Most of the deaths of the 1918 Spanish Flu in the United States have been attributed to urbanites carrying the disease to the country. Then, as now, it wound up being a flight into greater danger; it is estimated that during that epidemic, the death rate in big cities was about 1 in 100, while in rural areas it was as high as 9 in 10.

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But until this century, those who were able to flee were mostly the affluent – those who could afford scarce means of transportation and second-home rentals, and who were leaving the city because of fear of the disease itself.

In 2020, it’s the urban poor who are fleeing – and what’s driving them out is not fear of the disease, but a well-placed fear of economic ruin and starvation. They’re witnessing the collapse of the economies that provided their cash incomes, the closing of food markets and the imposition of curfews that keep them from feeding their kids. The hand-to-mouth rural living they fled years ago suddenly seems more secure.

Migrant workers and their families wait to have their temperatures checked before being allowed to board a train in Jammu, India, on June 11, 2020.

Channi Anand/The Associated Press

The consequences are only beginning to be felt. For one thing, this internal migration was responsible for turning COVID-19 into a predominantly rural disease, concentrated (since this summer) in low-density places that often lack even rudimentary health facilities.

Villagers saw this coming. “Those who were able to make it home found, in some instances, villages refusing entry because of fears of transmission,” writes Champa Patel of Chatham House, a London-based think tank. This has left millions stranded, without a livelihood in city or village.

Their absence is devastating both urban economies and those in villages, too, where money sent from the city has been the largest source of income for decades.

Most will probably return once the economy recovers. But that opens up a paradox: Without the migrant workers who make up most of the labour force in many cities, it will be hard to get the economy going again. Until we begin to recognize the plight of these stranded millions, a full recovery won’t be possible.

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