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Fighting xenophobia hand-in-hand with the battle against COVID-19

Omar Al-Ubaydli

Published: Updated:

Xenophobia always rises during crises such as Covid-19. In the Gulf, a popular manifestation has been blaming migrant workers for the disease’s spread. Such sentiments contribute to reckless behavior, as in the accusers’ minds, it absolves them of their need to act responsibly.

Humans are evolutionarily predisposed to exhibit xenophobic behavior because we are used to living in small groups of around 20 physically and culturally homogenous people. Hating outsiders and closing ranks are two sides of the same coin and aid the group’s survival when threats emerge.

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Living in modern melting pots like London is a recent phenomenon for most of the world’s population, meaning that we have to try hard to suppress our latent xenophobia. Multiethnic residence blocks, schools, and workplaces all help us keep a lid on things, as does being taught tolerance and acceptance.

However, all it takes is a crisis to throw people off equilibrium, and unfortunately for immigrants the world over, humans have encountered numerous crises since 2000.

After the post-Cold War serenity of the 1990s came 9/11, the war on terrorism, the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, debt crises in Europe, and Covid-19. People’s hardwired tendency to blame foreigners has grown and is reflected in the rising political power of nationalist-populist movements.

To ordinary people, problems like getting a job, securing a house, and avoiding a lethal virus are exacerbated by the presence of people who don’t look like them, or who hold a foreign passport. Consequently, the straightforward solution is expulsion; and if that isn’t possible, simply make the foreigners’ lives so miserable that they leave of their own volition.

I have personally experienced both sides of xenophobia. As an Arab Muslim in the US post-9/11, I faced intrusive security procedures as well as glares from the public. Conversely, as an Arab Muslim performing both greater (hajj) and lesser (Umra) pilgrimages in Mecca, when I get frustrated with the crowding and people not following the rules, I find myself feeling greater antipathy toward the non-Arabs present.

Setting aside moral considerations, such behavior is fundamentally counterproductive for two reasons.

A coffee shop is seen empty of customers after Saudi Arabia's decision to ban gatherings, following the outbreak of coronavirus, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, March 9, 2020. (File photo: Reuters)
A coffee shop is seen empty of customers after Saudi Arabia's decision to ban gatherings, following the outbreak of coronavirus, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, March 9, 2020. (File photo: Reuters)

First, it represents a misdiagnosis of the problem’s cause, meaning that the solution will not work. For example, Covid-19 cases in the Gulf countries rose sharply during the period corresponding to Ramadan and Eid because people were gathering in each other’s houses, and cases among migrant workers were significantly lower than their population share. Yet many erroneously insist that it is migrant workers transmitting the disease, thereby demanding their deportation. Their favored solution will be a waste of money.

Second, it stops them from taking the appropriate steps to address the problem. I know many Gulf citizens who have been participating in large gatherings, as well as hugging and kissing, all while dragging their feet about getting a free vaccine. But for these people, behaving responsibly is too much effort, and it might even be painful for their delicate self-esteem to realize that they are part of the problem. Instead, it is far more ingratiating to blame foreigners and demand their removal, while making no change to their own behavior.

Many of our evolutionarily-gained traits – such as running away when you are scared – are still useful, and we do not suppress them. Others may have been useful a few thousand years ago, such as resolving a conflict violently when you are bigger than the other person, but we have worked out that it is better to overcome our primal instincts. Xenophobia fits into this second category: it is behavior unbecoming of a 21st-century human, and it also clouds our judgment.

Gulf nationals need to understand that kicking out foreigners will not give them the jobs they seek at the salary they imagine. Nor will expelling migrant workers suppress Covid-19 – the UAE’s success indicates otherwise, where 80 percent of the population is non-Emirati. Instead, they need to think harder about the government policies that will make a difference, and the changes to their behavior that will yield positive results.

When you receive that WhatsApp message lamenting foreigners as the cause of problem X, step back and take a breath. More scientific answers to the question of why problem X is happening are easily available, but they require a readiness to accept that you could be part of problem X and that you might need to change to help deal with it.

Whatever era or country we live in, telling the truth and taking responsibility are two of the first lessons we teach our children. Don’t let your primitive instinct to hate foreigners make you forget these lessons.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.