Existing inequities intensify effect of COVID-19 on ethnocultural community members living in vulnerable conditions: study

Community health workers found to play a key support in bridging between people and the health- and social-care systems.

Kim Barnhardt with files from Ross Neitz - 9 August 2021

An innovative study sheds light upon the impact of COVID-19 on ethnocultural community members living in vulnerable circumstances, and researchers and community partners hope it will inform action and support to lessen those impacts moving forward. The study is published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ).

The project was a collaboration between researchers from the University of Alberta and the Multicultural Health Brokers Cooperative (MHBC), community health workers of immigrant and refugee background serving diverse ethnocultural communities in Edmonton, Alberta. They collected 773 stories of the impacts of COVID-19 and the efforts to mitigate it during the fall of 2020.

“We sought to understand how the challenges of COVID-19 are entangled with contextual factors at multiple levels, how families and communities are leveraging strengths and social capital to adapt, and what the role of cultural brokers is in managing the crisis, to inform broader national efforts to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19,” write co-leads Yvonne Chiu, co-executive director of MHBC; and U of A professor of family medicine Denise Campbell-Scherer; with coauthors.

The team found that COVID-19 destabilized family units and made it more time-consuming and resource-intensive for people to support their families. Finding appropriate information and support to help manage the impacts of the pandemic was also found to be a major challenge. Financial, food and housing insecurity, precarious employment, job loss, lack of sick leave to allow self-isolation, low English literacy and other factors increased the negative effects of COVID-19.

“The surge of COVID-19 in ethnocultural communities across North America, and the pandemic’s destabilizing effect on health-care systems, highlighted existing core issues with systemic structures that result in poorer health in ethnocultural communities,” write the authors. 

In addition to the challenges, the researchers say their findings show how families and communities have leveraged strengths and social capital to adapt, and the important role community health workers play as key supports in bridging between people and the health- and social-care systems. More work is needed, though, to ensure those systems can more successfully engage ethnocultural communities moving forward. The team believes this can be done by better utilizing trusted communication channels and leaders in the affected communities, as well as cultural and social resources. 

“The Illuminate Project has shown the entangled, systemic issues that result in poor health among people in vulnerable circumstances in ethnocultural communities, and the exacerbating impact of COVID-19, which also increased barriers to mitigation. Cultural brokering and community social capital were key supports for people in this crisis, and our findings can support policy and interventions that may reduce harm and support community resiliency,” the authors conclude.