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Helping prevent COVID-19 in minority ethnic communities with a strong oral tradition

With communication a key factor in the ongoing fight against COVID-19, the School of Education, Communication and Society’s Professor Gabriella Rundblad and Dr Chris Tang have been using their research on language, linguistics and cognition to help spread key health messages and raise awareness in minority ethnic communities with strong oral traditions.

In September 2020, six months into the global COVID-19 pandemic, Gabriella Rundblad and Chris Tang launched twin projects, CoronAwareness and Social learning about COVID-19 vulnerability, to help ensure that key health messages from the Government and NHS were reaching minority ethnic communities with strong oral traditions (and no recognised writing system) for who English is not the dominant language, such as the Sylheti, Pashto and Pahari communities.

Many in these communities have found following NHS and governmental advice challenging owing to language barriers, especially the older members with a more limited command of English, making them more vulnerable to vaccine hesitancy and the risks of COVID-19 community transmission.

Professor Rundblad is a cognitive linguist whose research focusses on health communication. She spearheaded CoronAwareness, a project focused on preventing COVID-related illness in the Sylheti, Pashto and Pahari communities by increasing awareness of appropriate social distancing measures, improving communication skills among GPs and local councils, and enhancing trust in locally communicated health messages through a series of videos. In partnership with Dr Farhana Rahman, AskDoc and Widgit Software, videos were recorded in Sylheti, Pashto and Pahari with the help of GPs from the communities and disseminated through social media and WhatsApp with the aid of community liaisons to ensure maximum impact.

Dr Tang, whose research interests focus on the development and use of applied linguistic methodology and tools in public health communication, risk and disaster communication, launched the social learning about COVID-19 vulnerability project. This ongoing 12 month study seeks to identify the practices adopted by Bangladeshis in a London borough in response to the pandemic, the attitudes and beliefs that underlie them and whether and how these have been influenced by messages about social distancing. There are now clear indications that Britain’s Bangladeshi communities have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 related morbidity and mortality and live in poorer, overcrowded areas in urban centres where viral contagion is more likely.

The team created an animated short video entitled ‘A Corona Story,’ which tells the story of the community through the eyes of a Bangladeshi family living in East London. Watch the trailer below:

On 9 September 2021, the team held an event to share the animation, hear from members of the public and discuss the findings. The evening included contributions from the Swadhinata Trust and Ripon Ray, who has been an important voice for the community through BritBanglaCovid, and included a Q&A was moderated by Cllr Asma Begum, Deputy Mayor Tower Hamlets. 

You can watch a recording of the event here:

Both projects have been well received within the communities and support for them continues to grow. The success of the CoronAwareness project has led to a fruitful collaboration with JKTV, the de-facto news and television station among Kashmiri, Pahari and Pashto communities, who are keen to share the videos and messages as widely as possible. Similarly, interest continues to grow in the Social learning about COVID-19 vulnerability project, most notably in a burgeoning collaboration with the United Nations’ Verified program as well as the Asian Resource Centre Croydon where Dr Tang, Professor Rundblad and Dr Rahman have developed a pilot training programme for “health champions” to support linguistically and culturally diverse communities.

Listen to Dr Tang talk about the projects below in an interview with JKTV.

In this story

Gabriella  Rundblad

Gabriella Rundblad

Professor of Language & Cognition

Chris Tang

Chris Tang

Lecturer in International Education & Applied Linguistics

Farhana Rahman

Farhana Rahman

Medical Research Consultant

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