Croatia BiH border

Covid-19 crisis and nativist rhetoric in Bangladesh

Ala Uddin

In times of a major crisis such as the current one caused by Covid-19, nationalism and various exclusive and nativist views seem to gain prominence. They open windows for processes of drawing a distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’, othering, blaming, and scapegoating. This short essay offers an overview of the emergence of nativist discourses during the Covid-19 crisis in Bangladesh. 

Given that until the beginning of March Bangladesh remained almost unaffected by coronavirus, many Bangladeshis thought, like in past pandemics, that coronavirus will not hit Bangladesh because the soil and climate of this country are not conducive to the spread of the virus. Since most people work in the sun outside, many believed, Bangladeshis are immune to the virus. They attributed the outbreak of coronavirus in developed countries to living conditions of people there and associated it with people spending time indoors and in air-conditioned rooms/offices.

Bangladesh’s hot and humid climate is a fertile ground for many deadly viruses and diseases that local people have had to cope with for generations. However, in the case of coronavirus, the growing belief that this is a different and a ‘foreign’ virus soon started to cause panic and fear. Despite the authorities’ downplaying of the threat from Covid-19 and the overly positive attitude toward overseas workers, many Bangladeshis began to believe that coronavirus is associated with bidesh (foreign country), bideshi (foreigners), and probashi (Bangladeshi migrant workers).

As Bangladeshi migrants began to return home since early March from some coronavirus hit countries (e.g. China, Italy, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar), they faced a different and suspiciously upon arrival at the airport, their villages or home towns. Soon they begun to be blamed for ‘bringing’ the contagious virus and considered as a potential threat for the country. Returnees from Europe (i.e. Italy) were asked to quarantine at government-arranged hajj camps, which lacked basic provisions and hygiene standards (e.g. bedroom, space, toilet, washroom, water, etc.). As a result, they refused to stay there, and then were asked to self-quarantine at their homes.

In fact, the first person who died on March 18 at a private hospital in Dhaka was a 70-year-old (male), who had contracted the disease when he came in contact with someone who had returned from Italy. Two other infected individuals were also returnee migrants from Italy. Therefore, the Covid-19 pandemic came to be considered as something that is caused by ‘unwelcoming’ oversees expats, with the authorities’ poor management of the airport considered to be the “initial mistake” (Bismillay galod) that aggravated the situation. 

In order to maintain visible surveillance and keep the non-migrant citizens in ‘safe distance’ from the migrants (‘virus bearers’), local security forces hoisted red flags on the top of migrants’ houses at their hometowns or villages. Furthermore, some local youths mobilised and started posting warning messages on social media to inform the local police about the migrants’ arrival and movement. Given that coronavirus was considered as an imported, foreign or migrant disease, absence of returnee migrants and lack of foreigners in a locality soon became an indicator of safety (a safe distance from the virus).

The pandemic has also impacted internal migrants who work in different cities within the country and who were forced to stay at their village homes during the government-imposed nationwide ‘holidays’ or ‘lockdown’ (March 26 – May 30). To many villagers, cities like Dhaka, Chittagong, Narayanganj, Gazipur soon became synonyms coronavirus outbreak and  ‘alien’. This alienation was also aided by the authorities decision to mark them as ‘red zones’ the infection rate was the highest in the country. As a result, the locals’ relationship with the (inter)national migrants changed from that of breadwinners, friends or relatives to ‘bearers’ of the deadly virus. 

In addition, many Bangladeshis also associate garment workers with the coronavirus outbreak given that they work in air-conditioned rooms at factories manufacturing goods for foreign companies/brands, and where frequent visits of foreigners are commonplace. Virus-prone garment workers in crammed factories are thus contrasted to resistant local farmers working in the sun without much consideration for the health and wellbeing of the low-paid factory workers.

Another example of a nativist attitude has been observed in the case of the Rohingya refugees. About a million Rohingyas live in densely populated camps in Cox’s Bazar district where the camps are so crowded that, despite strict attempts, maintaining social distancing and other hygiene (soap, water shortage) is next to impossible in the already isolated camps. Many had warned that once coronavirus hits refugee camps, it will be a ticking time bomb not only for the refugees but also for the entire region. However, despite the public and media slender, Rohingya refugees are still the least affected community in Bangladesh, with 35 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and three deaths (as of June 14, 2020) while the total confirmed Covid-19 cases in Bangladesh are 87,520 with 1171 deaths.

In short, to this day, many Bangladeshis consider coronavirus a ‘foreign disease’ imported by overseas emigrants. As a result of the pandemic, both internal and international migrants experienced ‘othering’ in their own society, where just months before they were sought-after citizens. It remains to be seen how the post-pandemic ‘new-normal’ will determine the sense of nativism and geopolitics of nationality.

Ala Uddin is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Chittagong, Bangladesh.