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Engage and empower: ensuring culturally diverse communities aren’t left behind on the road out of COVID

Introduction by Croakey: Clear recommendations for improving public health communications with culturally diverse communities emerged from a recent online forum hosted by researchers at the School of Population Health, UNSW Sydney.

This article is published by Croakey Professional Services as sponsored content.


Croakey Professional Services writes:

Governments and policymakers need to do better at engaging culturally diverse communities with public health responses to the pandemic as Australia moves towards easing COVID-19 restrictions, according to leading experts.

Researchers from the School of Population Health, UNSW Sydney recently held an online Think Tank forum to hear from community leaders, health service providers, government agency representatives and health researchers about what strategies have worked to date and to ensure best practice is followed going forward.

For effective engagement, it was critical to put community leaders at the centre of consultations, keep messaging simple and timely, provide information in multiple formats, and avoid a one-size-fits all, the webinar was told.

Think Tank organiser Associate Professor Holly Seale said it was important to privilege the voices of diverse communities as Australia moves into the next phase of the pandemic, with double dose vaccination rates of 70 and 80 per cent to trigger an easing of restrictions.

“We need to ensure all levels of government and those who provide services to culturally and diverse (CALD) communities continue to speak to communities to understand the reasons impacting COVID-19 vaccine acceptance,” she said.

“It is also critical that learnings are shared across communities about the strategies that are supporting uptake, and those that are not working. It is not just about having translated materials on a website but having a tailored immunisation approach.”

The webinar highlighted key barriers to effective engagement during the pandemic including: the use of confusing and complicated language in health messaging, a lack of translated information and inaccuracies in translations, hard-to-navigate websites, and taking a one-size-fits-all approach to diverse cultural groups.

Evaluation studies from Queensland and NSW health researchers highlighted the diversity that exists within community groups and the importance of tailoring messages to target audiences.

The studies found community members used multiple sources for information – social media, family and friends, community leaders, and government websites – and revealed marked differences across generations, language groups, and those with low health and digital literacy and English proficiency.

Community organising

Founder of the Somali Women’s Development Association (SWDA) Sainab Sheikh told of early efforts to inform the community about COVID-19. SWDA organised hundreds of Zoom sessions, WhatsApp group chats, conference calls and group emails to relay information.

Sheikh said the Victorian Health Department website was difficult to navigate, with the association working quickly to relay information in language, tweaking messaging in consultation with the community, and setting up Q and A sessions with health professionals – something that’s continued throughout the pandemic.

When a group of Somali women were turned away from a vaccine clinic because they weren’t part of the target group, Sheikh linked up with the clinic manager via the Victorian community health service cohealth to get them vaccinated. She now regularly contacts clinic managers to arrange bookings.

In central Victoria, the Bendigo Community Health Service (BCHS) has used its bicultural staff as a critical part of the COVID-19 messaging to Karen (Myanmar), South Sudanese and Afghan communities.

Among its successful initiatives is a Karen COVID hotline staffed by the bicultural team and health professionals five days a week, providing public health information, countering misinformation and organising vaccination bookings.

The leader of the cultural diversity team at BCHS, Kaye Graves, highlighted the need to understand communities, saying many have poor health, digital and service literacy.

Graves said many families – most with low English proficiency – have struggled with homeschooling during the pandemic, exacerbating feelings of loneliness and a sense of failure.

She said there was a real challenge with service providers trying to support people to access the MyGov website last year, with workers “standing on verandahs shouting through masks – it was very difficult”.

The webinar heard concerns that communities will be left behind, with the President of the Refugee Communities Advocacy Network (RCAN), Atem Atem, saying some in government agencies view the challenge of catering to multiple language groups as “too hard”.

Randa Kattan, CEO of the Arab Council Australia, agreed, saying the NSW Government left south-west Sydney and western Sydney behind at the start of the pandemic.

“We are always engaged after there is a problem – never upfront. The damage that has been done (through heavy-handed policing and the use of the military) is quite severe on the ground and there is a lot of feeling that this is racist,” she said.

Kattan questioned whether the new roadmaps would present a different approach, saying more financial stimulus was needed after months of hard lockdown and that communities needed to be consulted, not overlooked and left behind.

Early and sustained engagement

Dipti Zachariah is Multicultural Health Services team leader at Western Sydney Local Health Department (WSLHD) – which services a population where 50.3 percent of people speak a language other than English at home and 46.8 percent were born overseas.

She explained that community was always at the centre of the service’s response to COVID-19.

Dipti Zachariach, WSLHD

With diverse languages, nationalities, low literacy and health literacy, and socio-economic disadvantage adding to the complexity, Zachariah said community co-design was used from the outset.

The webinar heard of the importance of acknowledging and working with the existing resilience and knowledge of CALD communities, including new arrivals.

One example was to listen to those from countries which had dealt with serious infectious diseases such as Ebola, dengue and malaria, saying their lived experiences could help inform best practice going forward.

Use plain English

The need to use plain, simple English and concepts came through repeatedly during the Think Tank, with a Communication and Co-ordination breakout session hearing that public health and government material is still too complex, there’s a need for bite-size, easy-to-understand ‘chunks’, and that some terms don’t translate into another language.

It heard that demands on translation services are enormous and unrealistic, such as a request to translate thousands of words into 40 languages overnight, and that there is a lack of qualified translators.

There was also a need to get simple, plain English information out to community groups as quickly as possible, with the Queensland evaluation study finding community leaders very effective in picking up, simplifying and translating material for wider use.

Don’t rely on websites alone

Among the multiple channels used by communities to disseminate and receive COVID-19 information were official government websites, social media, audio/visual (YouTube and Facebook), WhatsApp, Zoom, email and the phone calls.

The Bendigo Community Health Service (BCHS), which delivers refugee services to Karen, Afghan and South Sudanese refugees, worked with Karen, Dinka and Dari speakers to co-design fact sheets, crafting simple English scripts.

Each was checked by two other language speakers for accuracy, then translated into fact sheets and audio-visual segments, before being disseminated using platforms including YouTube and Viber. Between July 2020 and July 2021, the BCHS online resource hub had 20,000 hits.

Local community champions and bilingual staff

Trusted local messengers were at the heart of effective engagement with diverse communities.

SWDA founder Sainab Sheikh used her own experience of twice having COVID-19, once last year and again in 2021, to spread the word to her community of the seriousness of the illness and press the need for testing and vaccination.

In western Sydney, the WSLHD created COVID safety champions and used bilingual members of its own team – some speaking 20-plus languages – to engage with communities.

With the message having to be tweaked repeatedly and the translation service under the pump, the WSLHD worked with community members to provide information that was clear, made sense and was accessible.

WSLHD also worked with trustworthy messengers – ordinary people, doctors, religious leaders and pharmacists – to drive calls to action and empower the message.

Reinforcing the importance of local champions, the Queensland engagement study found that each community leader reached an average of 200 people while for some it was thousands: evidence of how one trusted community leader can supercharge messaging.

Break down silos between service providers

Dr Nadia Chaves, an infectious diseases specialist at a Victorian community health service provider, cohealth, chaired a session on ways to break down silos between service providers working with culturally diverse communities on COVID-19.

It heard of frustration over the duplication of work across states, and of community members having to repeat themselves in meetings because of a failure to share information across government agencies.

There were also concerns raised about confusing messages and an overload of information, with community groups left wondering what to read and what to leave.

Kaye Graves, of Bendigo Community Health Services, spoke of the time spent building up service providers’ knowledge of the pre-settlement experiences of migrant communities.

BCHS began the work in 2012, working with the local hospital and other main services, building their understanding of the refugee journey, culture and faith of the Karen, Afghan and South Sudanese migrant communities.

Graves said understanding the risk and protective factors, such as poor health literacy, are central to creating an optimal settlement environment, and the region now has a refugee settlement network of major providers. This enables increased service coordination, understanding of unmet needs and gaps and identification of professional development needs in working with these communities.

Promote digital inclusion

Difficulties in navigating health department websites, especially for vaccination bookings, were common across diverse communities, according to service providers engaged in the Think Tank.

Community groups such as the Somali Women’s Development Association and the Bendigo Community Health Services underlined concerns with stories of community members being unable to access bookings due to confusing websites.

There were also issues with finding relevant information on local outbreaks, with local postcode searches being difficult, and particularly challenging for those with low digital literacy and little English.

Access to technology such as smart phones and the internet was also highlighted as a barrier for CALD communities, with one social media provider pointing out that digital transformation had not yet taken place in his small, typically face-to-face community, leading to challenges in disseminating information.

One suggestion was the engage tech-savvy international students and young tertiary students to help community members. The idea was to train these students to explain information or processes to community members, with the session told the students could be a great asset for government agencies.

Associate Professor Ben Harris-Roxas, a lecturer at the School of Population Health at the University of NSW, who chaired a session on enhancing communication, said governments are expecting people to navigate increasingly complex systems, such as MyAgedCare, the Carer Gateway and the NDIS which have a large digital component.

Harris-Roxas called for simple innovations such