Tailoring COVID-19 communication to vulnerable populations

I recall stepping into a South Asian restaurant in Hamtramck to order a carry-out early in the COVID-19 pandemic. The line waiting to be served was comprised of at least 10 men wearing traditional attire from their homelands, none of whom were masked, standing within a foot of each other, and conversing. I left immediately.

It caused me to think about the immigrant population in this pandemic. Among the vulnerable populations, how do they get their messaging about public health? Is it credible? Is it intelligible?

Despite the current resistance to immigration among some, the influx of new populations plays a constant role in the evolution of the United States. Each year, a new group of immigrants becomes citizens of this country, and often this comes with expressions of deep gratitude. Community leaders like Jihan Diman (https://www.freep.com/story/opinion/contributors/2020/07/05/refugee-independence-day/5368648002/?utm_source=native&utm_medium=capi_retrofit&utm_content=inapp&build=native-web_i_p) translate this into making their lives instruments of change through humanitarian service.

Diman, the founder of St. Rita Family Services, which provides social service for low-income refugees and immigrants in Michigan in Arabic and Chaldean, has been actively communicating about COVID-19 with her clients via telehealth platform. She appreciates the unique vulnerability of the immigrant population. “As every public health worker knows, we will not stop this disease unless all people, no matter who they are or where they were born, have access to fact-based information. Our clients are eager to cooperate once I explain how frequent hand washing, mask-wearing and social distancing can protect them and their neighbors.” She adds that for most immigrants, this pandemic isn’t their first experience with a crisis. Refugees understand that “survival depends on prioritizing safety and protecting one another.”

It’s possible that the men I saw waiting for their carryout dinners without masks and within a foot of each other didn’t have someone like Diman explain to them, in their language and with their cultural nuance, that this is a crisis and their actions will affect their family and their neighbors. As we communicate public health imperatives, we need “cooperation,” as Diman suggested. That means credible messaging delivered by cultural opinion leaders — in this case, in languages they understand.

In a diverse society, each segment interprets a message from authoritative sources through cultural lenses. It’s helpful to have professionals like Diman — interpret the message in ways that are understandable and believable. Short of a strictly-enforced authoritative approach to public health measures, only social cooperation will contain the coronavirus.

Dennis Archambault is vice president of Public Affairs for Authority Health