COVID-19 and Refugee Resiliency
In 2008, my family and I arrived in Springfield, Massachusetts from a refugee camp in Nepal. We were one of the first families to be resettled here. Since then, as a community leader, I have been fortunate enough to help my fellow Bhutanese community members through my work with a resettlement agency, health center, and research institutions.
COVID-19 completely changed everything, shining a spotlight on the risk factors faced by refugees and immigrants that lead to a high burden of chronic disease and health disparities.
One case in point: the digital divide. While many health care providers have ramped up their use of telemedicine services during this terrible time, many families who have no access to appropriate digital devices can’t access this support. No longer can they reach out in person to community health workers and social service agencies for guidance.
Another barrier: Most approved recommendations for staying safe during this pandemic are written in English. Many members of our community never had the opportunity to learn to read Nepali, so they can’t even make use of materials written in their own language, much less when they are presented in English.
Imagine trying to make sense of directions in a language you don't understand for which button to press on the phone to speak with a nurse. Even if you managed to find the correct voicemail box, without English-speaking skills, it is unlikely that they will understand your message and return your call.
Almost as toxic as the virus itself is the problem of mis-information, which spreads in its own dangerous way, rapidly, on social media. Instead of wearing masks, some drink liquor, believing that will kill the virus. Others eat ginger or garlic for the same reason, or inhale steam with Vicks vapor rub, believing it’s a treatment.
As an advocate for community health and wellbeing, I ironically turned to social media to help advance the flow of accurate and proactive information in a positive way. In mid-March 2020, I hosted a Facebook Live session with Dr. Ruben V., a Nepali physician, to talk about COVD-19 symptoms and prevention tips. So far, that conversation has been viewed more than 35,000 times.
Shortly thereafter, public health scientists from McGill University and Boston College School of Social Work’s Research Program on Children and Adversity (RPCA) worked with me to bring together a multidisciplinary panel of epidemiologists, medical doctors, psychiatrists, and Bhutanese educators. Among them were doctors from George Washington University and McGill University, as well as educators from resettled Bhutanese refugee communities. Together, we were able to host a series of “Facebook Live'' sessions.
Next, we turned our attention to mask-making. After raising $2,000, we trained community members who we then paid to make over 700 masks and distributed them to families who needed them most.
When schools began operating virtually, we arranged for Taran T., a Nepali-speaking family liaison with a local school district, to share tips, strategies, and available school resources with the Bhutanese community,
again over Facebook’s platform.
This pandemic has taught me how crucial it is that various constituents work together in service of the community at large.
Since March, I haven’t been to my work site, as, thankfully, my employer has let me work remotely. But I miss my colleagues and clients at the health center. Similarly, my wife did not get the optimal level of clinical exposure in her nursing training due to hospitals limiting student nurses in their clinical rotations. My three-year-old daughter had to stop going to the library and fun parks. But despite all those hardships, we have remained safe at home and have learned a lot from this experience—lessons which we hope to guide us in the future personally, professionally, and hopefully, as a community.
Bhuwan G., a former refugee from Bhutan, is a researcher on two NIH-funded projects to address the mental health and wellbeing of resettled Bhutanese in the US and Canada. He holds an MPA from Westfield State University.