Best Places to Survive and Thrive During a Pandemic

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By Peter Macfarlane

 

I don’t do lockdowns well. But I’ve always liked safe havens. And this pandemic is having some weird effects on places that I previously considered safe havens.

Originally I was going to title this article “best places to live post-pandemic” – but honestly I don’t see the pandemic coming to an end any time soon. Rather, we need to learn to live with Covid-19. It will not simply fade away.

There are supposedly now vaccines available – but I’m also sure I’m not alone in not wanting rushed, untried vaccines from big pharma injected into my body.

History shows us that the pandemic will eventually be controlled, but I think that is years rather than months ahead of us. The economic and political impact in the meantime will be beyond anything we can imagine… and this certainly plays a role equal to or greater than the pandemic itself in deciding where to spend time for the foreseeable future.

Besides being an optimist, I have always believed in pragmatism. If you don’t like something, don’t waste time complaining – just find a solution! Solutions, especially in this case, are not one-size-fits-all, but rather need to be thought out according to individual circumstances. Therefore this article has extended into something much longer than I originally planned, and it can still only cover a few options. It has definitely turned into the kind of article where you should get a coffee first and put your feet up.

The key thing to surviving and thriving in these complex times is to keep an open mind, think laterally, and take decisions based on risk analysis, not fear. In the vast majority of cases the effects of the virus itself are not all that bad. Speaking as someone who was in bed for a week with the virus in March of this year, I can say it certainly exists and is certainly an unpleasant ailment, but not nearly as bad as when I had dengue fever for example. All I can say: taking precautions makes sense, but paranoia, fear, and giving up civil rights do not.

How to Cope with Wing Clipping

I have certainly had my wings clipped in 2020 and am having to think very differently. I value the wealth of knowledge and information that the internet has granted us, but the more information overload there is, the more I have come to value personal interaction as a way of doing business. Sitting and spending time with someone face to face is simply the best form of due diligence that there is – besides being the best way to cement relationships built over the internet. For years, therefore, I’ve been the kind of guy who will get on a plane to the other side of the world at a moment’s notice if there is a serious business deal on the table.

Another thing to consider about the internet is that it’s becoming more and more restricted. I don’t think we can rely on it to continue developing in the way we are accustomed to. We’ve heard for years of Chinese restrictions on the internet, but even I didn’t expect the United States to be the next country to start blocking huge parts of the web.

For anybody who has ever been to China, you know that WeChat is huge. The significance of President Trump’s threats to ban WeChat in the USA is equally huge. It could be the beginning of the end of the internet as we know it. Where does that leave crypto-currencies? I’ll leave that question open for a future article.

So, back to safe havens: I’m lucky enough to be in the situation of having a worldwide network of serious business contacts in a wide range of fields… and I’ve been dedicating a lot of thought to safe havens to base myself in a world where travel has become so much harder. That is the topic of this article. It is not a scientific study at all, but is rather based on anecdotes from my network of contacts. And I fully admit I have always chosen to be more European-American focused than Asian.

Here, then, are my thoughts and observations… in no particular order:

Getting a Residence Permit in a Tax Haven Just Became Way Easier! 

While many Caribbean islands are still firmly shut, even to tourism that normally represents their livelihood, Bermuda and Barbados both just launched new one-year visa programs for digital nomads. This is huge – not just for people who want to move to Bermuda or Barbados, but as part of the bigger pandemic immigration picture, and it’s a trend that is set to grow.

The premise is that if you’re going to be working remotely anyway, why not work from paradise? The digital nomad lifestyle has really taken off in recent years, especially amongst young freelancers. They are the next generation of what we at Q Wealth call perpetual travellers.

The new Barbados and Bermuda programmes are open to all-comers from all nations and do not have particularly onerous requirements. Importantly, they both explicitly make clear that applicants will not be liable to any local taxes. Considering the permit is valid for one year, it would qualify in pretty much all other countries as a foreign residence.

This means, for example, that an employee of a company in London can continue working for the exact same company doing the exact same job as always, but can work from Barbados or Bermuda and no longer have to pay taxes. Yes there are a few slight complications to deal with (see UK residence tests), but it can be done fairly easily.

Barbados’s “Welcome Stamp” Program costs $2,500, while the Work from Bermuda program costs a total of just $263 in government fees and the application process in both cases is 100% online. It can easily be done by the applicant him or her self, so it’s not good news for self-styled immigration experts.

What about income requirements? While Barbados requires you to declare that you expect to earn at least $50,000 in the coming year, the qualification requirements listed on the Bermuda government’s official Work from Bermuda site are as follows:

  • be at least 18 years old and pay the application fee
  • not have been convicted of a crime in Bermuda or elsewhere
  • possess valid health insurance coverage
  • demonstrate employment with a legitimate company or your own company registered and operating outside of Bermuda, in the case of a remote worker

This is hardly onerous stuff. I would imagine that an offshore company with a decent set of accounts should do the trick. There are additional options for students or persons of independent means.

Now, here’s an interesting question for comparative purposes. How does this differ for example from Anguilla’s Residency-by-Investment Program launched in 2019? Well, there are two major differences:

The price: Bermuda’s is $263 per year, Anguilla’s is $75,000 per year, plus some other requirements regarding investment in real estate and/or government funds.
The length of time: Bermuda’s is one year, and after that you have to apply again with no guarantee of acceptance. Anguilla’s requires a five year commitment.

Anguilla and Bermuda, I should add, both enjoy the exact same status as British Overseas Territories. After five years of residence in either territory you can apply for a British passport – not a slam dunk, but certainly doable. Personally I would say Bermuda is a way more liveable place than Anguilla. Bermuda even allows you to take your domestic staff with you on this type of visa if you wish!

The “tax the rich” crowd haven’t figured out the significance of this yet… but as I said, I think it is huge. Is Bermuda likely to throw all remote workers out after a year? Not really. I suspect as long as one behaves decently whilst there, contributes by spending money in the local economy, and does not bring scandal to the island, the permit will be renewed. That said, nothing is forever and nothing is guaranteed. Any residence permit anywhere can be revoked at any time.

Anguilla’s program has never been all that attractive, but one that has done very well is Panama’s “Friendly Nations” visa program. This program, launched by a Presidential Decree some years ago, allows citizens of various mainly EU and first-world countries with some extra additions such as South Africa and Brazil, to put $5,000 in a Panamanian bank and qualify for an instant residence and work permit on very privileged terms.

So what about Panama, one of our traditional favourites at Q Wealth? I’ll move on to Panama next, but my conclusion to this section is we are going to see a lot more of these remote worker programs. Estonia is doing something similar (building on its now well-known E-Residency program to offer physical residence). Getting a residence permit in a tax haven just became way easier!

A U-Turn for Minimal Governments?

Normally, I like to be in places where the government doesn’t bother you too much. Governments in places like the USA and UK have become way too intrusive.

One very interesting phenomenon I have observed, however, is that the governments that have generally been the most laissez-faire have suddenly become the most totalitarian when it comes to pandemic lockdowns. Perhaps I was naive, but I never expected this. In my future thoughts on places to spend time, though, this will definitely be a major factor to consider.

Panama is the perfect example of this. Pre-pandemic, I saw Panama as an open, business-friendly country. Things will hopefully get better, but my view of Panama will never be the same again.

Panama used to be a place where the government didn’t function especially well, but also didn’t bother the people. The Central American country, however, introduced in March some of the strictest lockdown measures in the world. Men and women are only allowed out to do their shopping on alternate days, and the country has been closed to air travel for months. For a long time, my friends stuck there were not even allowed to buy a beer (a strict necessity in the tropical heat), as sale of alcohol was banned. Such strict restrictions might have been excusable if at least they kept the infection rate down – yet Panama has one of the highest per-capita infection rates in Latin America.

Panama still has some of the best corporate and asset protection laws, and is one of the most realistic and accessible places to base a tax-free business (due to territorial taxation laws) with real residence and substance. Fortunately, the Panamanian establishment is well enough entrenched to make sure that the “offshore” business continues to exist. But as a place to live? I’m not so sure any more. It’s certainly not the free country I thought it was.

Paraguay is another country we have written a lot about in the past for residency, that also introduced a very strict lockdown. Paraguay has the freest economy in the Mercosur region, as well as vast open spaces, very fertile land and an abundance of food and water. In many respects it is the ideal place to self-isolate if the world comes to an end.

In the past, a couple of my personal consulting clients bought rural property in Paraguay and actually moved there. One sadly passed away a couple of years ago, but he spent the last years of his life happily living out his dream of riding on horseback around the Paraguayan wilderness, about as far removed from bureaucracy as anywhere on the planet. Another is busy with a successful citrus fruit business.

Paraguay seems to have achieved a better balance than Panama. Whilst the lockdown has been strict, and protests against it have occasionally erupted into violence, expats seem to be less affected.

Uruguay, however, is the winner for me in terms of quality of life and civilization during the pandemic. People are taking sensible precautions, and despite being surrounded by giants Brazil and Argentina, the country has maintained its economy and its borders relatively open.

Talking of the large economies in the region, both Mexico and Brazil have been getting a lot of bad rap around the world for not taking the virus seriously enough. Mexico has a supposedly very leftist President, while Brazil has a very right wing President. Both have taken similar paths of trying to keep their economies open as much as possible and have been strongly criticized for it. Unsurprisingly, it is the right in Mexico and the left in Brazil that are in favour of stricter lockdowns… Which just goes to show how much of the issue is about political gain, and how much is really about public health.

The fact is, though, the majority of the populations in Latin America live day to day. There are no European-style “furloughs” and no pandemic welfare checks from the President like in the USA. There is no way Latin American governments could afford such programs and, put bluntly, it makes no sense to protect people from a virus by starving them. Therefore, I think the Presidents of both Brazil and Mexico pursued the correct courses of action in difficult circumstances.

Where to Go if You’ve Got the Travel Bug Right Now!

Both Brazil and Mexico – major economies – are open right now to visitors and tourism, and I am sure if you take normal precautions the risk of catching Covid is no greater than anywhere else. So if you have the travel bug in you, Mexico and Brazil are great places to go right now. Mexico City’s airport has suddenly also become a major transit hub for Europeans wanting to visit the US. Hotel and flight prices are low.

To finish on this topic, another observation from the pandemic is that the people of a country are ultimately responsible for the governments they vote for. Intuitive? Well, I’ve always tried to separate people from their governments. In other words when I meet an American, I don’t blame the individual for the actions of his or her government.

The scary thing however is how, in Panama especially (and you will see this reflected to a lesser extent in other countries across the region) the people in general seem very supportive of their government’s extreme policies. Panamanians have literally been lynching people from the city if they try to travel to the countryside. It is now easier for someone in Panama City to travel to the US than it is to visit the beach in their own country.

Early in the pandemic, a lot of people were stranded on cruise ships and Panama barely wanted to let these ships transit the canal, let alone disembark. Uruguay, however, was the only country that would let passengers from the Australian-operated cruise ship Greg Mortimer disembark and fly home. If you don’t know the story, you can read it here. The point is, the rescue mission became a source of national pride in Uruguay: “They are not Uruguayans and they are in a foreign-flagged ship, but they are human beings,” wrote one doctor from Montevideo’s British Hospital, reflecting the general attitude of the people.

Such a difference when compared to the attitude of the Panamanian population… And in these challenging times, you want to be in a society that is going to respect you as a human being.

Europe as a Safe Haven for Pandemic Living?

Many online libertarian commentators rage against the ‘old continent’ in general, and the European Union in particular, as old-fashioned places where it is impossible to do business.

That makes some sense, and it’s not even worth opening the Brexit can of worms… but when we are talking about a place to live, Europe still has a great deal to offer. Most European countries offer many lifestyle advantages, as well as technical advantages of great healthcare systems and good internet connections.

The PT Six Flags theory has always been about separating flags like business base, tax residence and physical residence – so the fact that Europe has high taxes shouldn’t really matter as long as you pay your taxes elsewhere.

The European Union has been holding up pretty well in terms of allowing people to move around if they are citizens or tourists. In other words, if you have either a passport or a permanent residence card from an EU country, you can basically fly in and out of any other EU country. This is a great advantage as far as I’m concerned.

To give you a concrete example, the best EU residence permit is the Portuguese golden visa. It only requires a minimum of seven days physical presence per year, which doesn’t get you into any European tax net. With this you have the right to move around pretty freely in most of the rest of the EU, even in times of Covid, enjoying a European lifestyle without having to submit a European tax return. This, at a time when Americans, for example, are banned from almost the whole of Europe.

Another good option that I’ve taken up myself in recent years and recommended to a few of my personal consulting clients is Serbia. Belgrade, Serbia’s biggest city, is a cosmopolitan European capital that offers a civilized European lifestyle at a fraction of the price of most of the rest of Europe. There’s a fantastic variety of food, with Italian, Germanic, Ottoman and Greek influences reflecting the long history of this region as a crossroads of Europe. A residence permit can be obtained typically within a month, giving you access to major European banks, and the tax authorities are quite laid back. Belgrade is fast catching on as a great, low cost nomad base.

Whilst at the moment there is a higher than average rate of Covid infections in Serbia, when it comes to travel restrictions we know that politics trumps healthcare. The European Union is keen to maintain Serbia and its neighbouring countries with a pro-western outlook within its sphere of influence, so as not to let Russia and China expand their power there. Therefore I don’t expect any problems travelling out of Serbia in the future, even though it’s not in the EU.

Why Having Two Passports from the Same Country is Useful

It’s not widely known or publicised, but most major countries allow frequent travellers to hold more than one valid passport from the same country at the same time. For example the US State Department has published guidance on this matter, as has the British government.

If you are able to meet the requirements for a second or additional passport, it’s a great idea to get one. It may not be so easy now with Covid – which just goes to show why you should have got one before even if you didn’t really need it, and why you shouldn’t miss the opportunity if it comes around a second time!

The main benefit is that you may not want authorities in one country to see stamps of another. I try to keep one of my passports virgin with as few stamps as possible, and put all the stamps from my travels to more exotic and potentially controversial countries in the other. This can avoid awkward questions.

Of course if you have different residence visas you can then keep them in different passports, and ultimately having a backup passport is peace of mind. If the worst happens and one gets lost or stolen, you still have the other. The pandemic has drastically slowed down the passport issue and replacement processes in most countries, so now would not be a nice time to get stuck without a passport!

Conclusion: Have as many residencies, passports and citizenships as possible!

If you hadn’t got it already, the conclusion of this article is pretty clear! Whenever you have a chance to obtain a new citizenship or residence permit, do so.

Even having two passports from the same country has proven more than useful to me over the past few months, as I don’t necessarily want authorities to see stamps from the countries I have visited recently.

I’ve been able to move around relatively freely in my regular stomping grounds because of the passports and residencies I have. I do however have one regret: travelling to Panama used to be so easy (180 day entry stamped on arrival) that I never bothered to apply for the permanent residency card. Now, I have an apartment in Panama City that I can’t get to for the foreseeable future. All because I was too lazy to apply for the residence permit!

There is no way we can predict what will happen next, but coronavirus is here to stay, and the world is not going back to the way it was any time soon.

We will be keeping Q Wealth members updated regularly on this topic, with out-of-the-box advice from a series of different experts. Our limited time $5 membership offer still applies for the time being while we update our Members-Only Area. This will revert to normal pricing as soon as we are ready with the new content, so don’t miss out on this opportunity!

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