An uphill battle during these trying times – breaking down barriers for immigrants and refugees in the wake of COVID-19

In these uncertain times, it can seem overwhelming trying to keep track of the constant changes in rules and regulations set out by the province. However, for some, this task becomes increasingly difficult when language and systemic barriers are also at play.

MOSAIC, one of the largest settlement and employment agencies in the country, has launched a new COVID-19 Health Navigator initiative to help newcomers to stay safe during these unprecedented times. This initiative is in partnership with the Burnaby Primary Care Network (PCN) to guide those who may be having trouble accessing news and resources related to COVID-19.

“When the pandemic started and the provincial guidelines were being announced on a daily basis, we knew that our clients did not speak English well enough to understand what the guidelines were,” says Zarghoona Wakil, senior manager at MOSAIC. “So, we started to ask ourselves how we should respond to this situation.”

MOSAIC’s COVID-19 Health Navigator helps newcomers steer the pandemic.

Health Navigator consists of a team of trained staff and volunteers, some of whom are international medical graduates (IMGs) who provide services in 21 languages.

“International medical doctors not only break down language barriers but also provide the cultural skills that are needed in order to better understand and help our clients,” she adds.

Cultural and systemic barriers

Although many newcomers face language barriers when trying to access services related to COVID-19, cultural factors also play a key role in understanding the challenges newcomers face when going about their daily lives during the pandemic.

“Cultural barriers also have a great impact. Take for instance cultural and/or religious practices where people come together. If they do not have information on the guidelines set in place by the province, they will not be able to follow them,” says Wakil.

Without the adequate information needed to keep themselves safe during the pandemic, newcomers are placed in a vulnerable position. Additionally, MOSAIC’s Health Navigator also provides IMGs a chance to home in on their untapped medical expertise that usually goes unnoticed when arriving in Canada.

“Demographically, Canadian society is changing,” says Wakil. “We are becoming increasingly more diverse and the healthcare system should reflect that in order to meet the needs of the population as it changes. Diversifying the healthcare system creates a model that is more culturally aware. Having more IMGs in the field allows us to enrich the current medical system with different languages and skills.”

Looming feelings of stress and anxiety

Due to the challenges newcomers face when trying to access the information needed during the pandemic, many of them are left in a state of unease. This is exacerbated by the increase of jobs lost within the community.

“The majority of our clients have lost their jobs,” says Wakil. “Usually the newcomer population works in low-paying jobs and they work two or three of these jobs to make ends meet. By losing these jobs, many of our clients were left with a lot of anxiety and increased feelings of depression. Additionally, due to these levels of stress, domestic violence has also increased.”

Thanks to different social programs set into place by the federal and provincial government, those who have experienced job loss due to the pandemic are able to keep their heads above water. However, newcomers are unable to access these programs due to an array of reasons.

Anxiety and depression have also spiked amongst the elderly immigrant population who have isolated themselves in light of the increase of hate crimes across the province.

“The most vulnerable population during the pandemic is the newcomer senior population. With help from our seniors program, we donated and installed computers for our elderly clients and provided online programs such as tai chi, yoga and English conversation circles,” adds Wakil.

Through the Health Navigator initiative and the various programs run by MOSAIC, newcomers have the opportunity to receive important news surrounding COVID-19 as well as express their immediate concerns regarding the pandemic.

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