Illustration by Al Yazia Alblooshi

Into the UAE: How Social Strata Play Out in Pandemics

When individuals and communities don’t have equal footing in a society, when carefully camouflaged privileges pre-exist in institutions, even a global pandemic cannot remain impartial.

Apr 4, 2020

A pandemic, by definition, is pervasive. It seeps through borders and boundaries, across class structures and social hierarchies, disrupts supply chains, markets and the global economy as we know it. It is universal, nonpartisan and equal in its destructiveness. Right?
Except that it’s not. It is precisely in times like these when the deeply-embedded inequalities of our societies surface. When low-wage workers and vulnerable communities that deserve institutional prioritization are further crushed by the system, the difference between white collar and blue collar jobs becomes even more salient.
It is these inherent features of our capitalist system that make public health regulations, which are as fundamental as social distancing, a privilege for millions of individuals and communities. How does a family of seven practice physical distancing when living in a one-room crib? What does a domestic worker do when asked to stop commuting and move into her employer’s home while her children are left in her village? What choice does a low-income worker make between retaining their job and bearing the risk of contracting a disease? These are real stories, closer to us than you would think.
Social stratification is no new concept for those of us living in the UAE. The divisions between the local, the expat and the migrant is a blatant reality of life here. It takes a walk down the highline to notice ongoing construction in our near horizon, a cab ride downtown to observe delivery men working relentlessly till late hours or even a conversation with a cashier at D2 to recognize the stark difference between how students and contracted workers navigate the same reality.
The overwhelming fear, anxiety and emotional exhaustion that comes with this epidemic is indeed universal. Lack of job security, structural vulnerability, susceptibility to misinformation and indefinite access to reliable medical resources is not universal. When individuals and communities don’t have equal footing in a society, when carefully camouflaged privileges pre-exist in institutions, even a global pandemic cannot remain impartial.
Construction sites in the UAE remain open. And while these companies are [abiding by international health guidelines] (, the necessity of incessant construction in the backdrop of a global health crisis is questionable. On the other hand, there are thousands of taxi drivers with no customers. “We work on commision,” a taxi driver explained to me, “with no customers, we can’t meet our target. If we don’t meet our target, we don’t make enough money.”
Of course, the struggles of the working class are not exclusive to the UAE, but they are closest to us. And as we grapple with the challenges we face individually and as a student body, it is important to be mindful of all those working on the backend of our community. The G4S officers who bear the responsibility of our safety on campus may be extremely anxious about the safety of their own families back home. The ADNH workers who ensure the highest levels of hygiene and food safety in our meals may not always have access to the same hygiene conditions for their meals off-campus. This is not to say that the health and wellbeing of our contracted colleagues aren’t prioritized — they very much are. But we cannot overlook the underlying hierarchy that exists even within our campus ecosystem.
During a conversation with a contracted colleague, they told me, “We are here because you all are here. If you left, what work would we have?” Perhaps their jobs would still be secure, or maybe they would be relocated, but that’s not the point. The fact that such insecurities and vulnerabilities exist, even in a community as exemplary as ours, is telling.
The question arises, how do we navigate our privilege in a time when we, too, feel increasingly vulnerable? I don’t quite know the answer. But I think it might start somewhere along the lines of empathy.
Nandini Kochar is a columnist. Email her at
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