As cases began to surge during the second wave in B.C., especially in Surrey, people began questioning why COVID-19 education and information wasn’t more easily and readily available in multiple languages.
In October, when provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry was asked what could be done for better messaging about enforcement in other languages, Henry said they have been doing “outreach to a number of different communities in the past week in particular, recognizing where people are being infected.”
Henry said they were looking to the faith and community leaders to “help reinforce the importance right now of keeping our celebrations to small and safe ones, and keeping the larger celebrations of life or parties or other important memories to a time when it’s safe to do so.”
That was in the lead-up to Diwali in mid-November, and soon after health authorities — and specifically Fraser Health — began posting more infographics and other information in multiple languages on social media. Some showed how cases could spread easily in a community, while others showed people how to wear a mask if they also wore a turban or a hijab.
In a statement, Fraser Health said its South Asian Health, Public Health and Health Protection teams “all play an active an important role in communicating with and supporting our community members of all cultural backgrounds and ethnicities, both as part of their regular work and during the pandemic to help build understanding and implementing COVID-19 safety measures.”
It added Fraser Health started translating COVID-19 “content/campaigns” on social media, starting in March.
“Through the pandemic, we have ensured transparency and provided timely information to ensure our communities have the information they need to stay safe,” the release noted. “We create new shareable information and resources that are translated into multiple languages, including into Punjabi, Hindi, Farsi, Simplified Chinese, Korean and Arabic.”
Dr. Navdeep Grewal, who works at both Delta Hospital and Mount Saint Joseph Hospital in Vancouver, said she noticed an increase of diverse messaging in the weeks leading up to Diwali. That messaging also extended into another Sikh holiday, Gurpurab, at the end of November, as well as through the Christmas holidays.
Grewal is part of the South Asian COVID Task Force, which started in the Peel region of Ontario, and specifically Brampton, which was seeing a higher rate of cases, along with less access and more barriers to testing.
The task force was started in mid- to late-November, and Grewal said she got involved just a few days later “because (the Ontario founder) knew me and asked if we could have some B.C. representation as well because she could see we were starting to hit the news with the increased numbers of COVID cases in the Fraser Health Authority as well.”
By the end of November, Surrey recorded 10,479 COVID-19 cases between Jan. 1 and Nov. 30. That was about 32 per cent of B.C’s 33,238 cases, despite Surrey only having about 11 per cent of the province’s total population.
Grewal said there are a “number of prongs” to the task force.
She said it’s about creating “culturally aware, culturally relevant” information that can be dispersed into the respective communities; breaking that information down into “easy-to-understand” infographics; and advocating for better awareness as to why cases might be much higher in some regions.
“There’s a lot of different reasons why the South Asian community has more cases, or has had more cases,” explained Grewal. “One of our biggest fundamental things that we’re trying to get across is to, first of all, educate the public, but also to educate the South Asian community about what they can do, given that they have these factors that result in them getting COVID more often.”
From there, she said the task force then moves on to how to help prevent people from contracting COVID, and what can be done if they do test positive.
Grewal added the task force is working on educating people on how the pandemic can affect mental health, as well as vaccine information for the South Asian community. She said education will focus on vaccine hesitancy, dispelling myths and informing physicians on how to educate their patients as the vaccine rolls out.
For more information on the South Asian COVID-19 Task Force, visit southasiancovidtf.ca.
In a City of Surrey profile, based on data from the 2016 census, it states 43 per cent of the city’s population are immigrants. The “top 4 ethnic groups” were Caucasian (42 per cent), South Asian (33 per cent) Chinese (eight per cent) and Filipino (six per cent).
The data states that South Asian includes East Indian, Pakistani and Sri Lankan, among others.
As for languages in Surrey, the most common languages spoken at home are English (66 per cent), Punjabi (17 per cent), “other languages” (nine per cent), Mandarin (four per cent), Hindi (two per cent) and Tagalog (two per cent).
According to a Surrey school district 2019/2020 fact sheet, there are more than 195 languages spoken at students’ homes, other than English.
Because of the diverse population in Surrey and Fraser Health, Kulpreet Singh, founder of South Asian Mental Health Alliance, said a multilingual interpretation is needed when it comes to understanding COVID-19 and the public-health orders created for the pandemic.
“I was born and raised in Canada, I fluently speak English, but anyone like me, who speaks English fluently, was still confused by some of the restrictions and there was still discussion in the local media how some of the restrictions were confusing,” Singh noted.
“You can see as a secondary factor, when it gets into language discrepancies and language barriers, how confusing that might be.”
However, the ministry still only provides the verbal COVID-19 updates in English, with Minister of Health Adrian Dix answering the odd question in French. And online translations may not be easily accessible to those with English as a second language.
Singh said it’s “not a very difficult step” for the government to take to provide more accessible videos and infographics in multiple languages.
“There are a lot of medical professionals, very, very respected and qualified medical professionals, who could speak, for example, in Arabic or Punjabi or Tagalog or Mandarin and they could provide these updates on a government YouTube channel,” said Singh. “It doesn’t require a high budget, it doesn’t require a lot of infrastructure. All it requires is a little bit of innovation and a little bit of motivation to get that done.”
Asked if she thinks multilingual message was needed earlier in the pandemic, Grewal said the disparity in cases between different communities wasn’t necessarily apparent until September.
“Up until that time, with our low case counts across the province, it didn’t really seem to be an issue,” Grewal explained.
“It was really highlighted once the weather started getting colder, people started gathering more indoors, people across all cultures started to get a little bit more complacent, knowing that the numbers had been so low in the summertime.”
She added the pandemic “didn’t really shine a light on the disparities until that time, so I don’t know if cultural effective messaging would have been useful prior to then.”
Similarily, Grewal said releasing race-based data could be a “double-edged sword.”
“You don’t want to scapegoat entire communities based on the fact that they are getting higher case counts,” she noted. “But, at the same time, it would also shine a light on why there’s a disparity and help us to advocate for those same communities, knowing that there are multiple reasons for the case counts being higher.”