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Social learning about COVID-19 vulnerability and social distancing in high density populations: the case of UK urban dwelling Bangladeshis

Early epidemiology indicates older members of Britain’s Bangladeshi communities are disproportionately affected by Covid-19 related morbidity and mortality. Bangladeshis are more likely to have comorbidities and live in poorer, overcrowded areas in the UK’s urban centres where viral contagion is more likely. This cross-section of socioeconomic, geographical and health related factors underlines the need for clear messaging about social distancing in a complex and shifting risk scenario – messages that this vulnerable group, who speak an oral language (Sylheti), may not be able to access directly due to low literacy and English language proficiency.

This study will 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. Drawing on our earlier work, it will examine the role of social learning in how messages are accessed and interpreted and whether and how the health interactions of this older group are mediated by friends, family members and acquaintances. Social learning in this sense involves changes in understanding or reflections on the assumptions that underlie these understandings that goes beyond individuals or small groups, and becomes situated in wider social units or communities.1

In communicating about Covid-19, such a practice is likely to include relaying advice in English to older Bangladeshis, a task that requires more than just translation. It means reframing abstract, written conceptualisations of risk expressed in key messages into situational, oral understandings, while showing sensitivity to the cultural, social, psychological, environmental and historical influences on health behaviour.2

See our sister project, CoronAwareness, which seeks to prevent Covid-related illness in ethnic minority communities with a strong oral tradition through a series of informational videos in minority languages.

Project team

Community researchers

Nurjahan Julie Begum: Chair at the Swadhinata Trust 

Ansar Ahmed Ullah: Researcher and author on a range of projects focusing on UK Bangladeshis, e.g. in collaboration with the Swadhinata Trust: The oral history project, ‘Tales of Three Generations of Bengalis in Britain’ (2006). Ansar’s research interests include the sociology of ethnicities, identity, nationalism, extremism and community history.

Sylheti Language Consultants

Lubaba Nusrat Khalil: A Sylheti-Bangladeshi applied linguist and ESL teacher living, teaching and researching in Canada. Research interests in Second Language Acquisition.

E. Marie Thaut: Project Manager, Sylheti Project – SOAS in Camden.

Ehtasham Haque: Researcher based in Tower Hamlets. Research interests include ethno-politics, British Muslims and John Rawls.

Nasima Islam: An experienced Bengali-English translator/interpreter and former HLTA in London, focused on community/social services, health and research.

Research associate

Mark Cabling: A social scientist specialising in health communication. His research includes diverse projects in both academia and government, investigating breast cancer, medical education, computational linguistics and domestic terrorism. He has just finished his doctoral study on online personal narratives of men with breast cancer.


Diwas Bisht

Other projects looking at ethnicity, culture and COVID-19

Stay home stories looks at the question: How has the pandemic changed our relationship to home? This project addresses this question through interviews, podcasts, films and events in London and Liverpool.

BritBanglaCovid is a platform set up to share and debate the issues facing UK Bangladeshis during the pandemic.

An international study led by Professor John Eade at the University of Roehampton which draws a comparison between the experiences of ethnic minority groups around the world.

A Corona Story - public events recordings

9 Sept: Public discussion and advanced screening of our animation "A Corona Story".

This public event included a film screening, panel discussion and Q&A.

21 Sept: Webinar for researchers, policymakers and practitioners on addressing communication inequalities for minority ethnic groups.

This event brought together policymakers, researchers and civil society to share the findings and learning from these projects and the implications for building trust and developing more inclusive communication practices for minority ethnic groups.

22 January 2022: Film Launch and Public discussion - "A Corona Story", diasporic experiences of the pandemic

This event aimed at sharing our findings and inspiring young Bangladeshi researchers in translating research into community impacts.

A warm thanks to the University of the Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB), North South University, BRAC University and Independent University Bangladesh (IUB) for staging this event.

A Corona Story - videos

You can view a trailer for the animation below, as well as the animation itself, in both the English/Sylheti and the Bengali versions.


Set in the London borough of Tower Hamlets, home to 18% of the UK’s Bangladeshi population and the largest Sylheti community outside Bangladesh[3], this study will identify the nature and potential for social learning about COVID-19 vulnerability and the need for social distancing amongst UK Bangladeshis. Most crucially, we will address the potential exclusion of this vulnerable group of older Bangladeshis within current approaches to communication by identifying ways of boosting the potential for social learning about COVID-19 amongst UK Bangladeshis.

We will pose the following research questions:

  • RQ1 What are the prevalent attitudes, beliefs and practices relating to notions of social distancing in response to perceived vulnerabilities and risks of COVID 19 amongst older Bangladeshis and the social contacts they rely on to mediate advice?
  • RQ2 How have they accessed and interpreted messages about social distancing? How could additional communication build upon existing attitudes, beliefs and practices, to boost compliance with social distancing protocols and reduce vulnerability?
  • RQ3 What is the role of choice of language (speaking Sylheti/English) and linguistic choices (e.g. “spatial distance” or “physical distance”) in mediating notions of social distancing in relation to COVID-19?
  • RQ4 What is the potential for social learning about the need for social distance in relation to COVID-19? How could this potential be boosted?


Phone interviews with older Bangladeshis and their social contacts. We will recruit Bangladeshis over the age of 60 as research participants. The interviews will identify attitudes, beliefs and practices relating to notions of social distancing, as well as information about their access and awareness of central messages, and their linguistic background and multilingual resource. Participants will be asked if they habitually rely on a friend, acquaintance, or family member to mediate information in English and nominate this person for an interview. The interviews with social contacts will focus on the same topics, but from the perspective of the mediator.

Qualitative analysis will be conducted in two phases. We will first perform a thematic analysis to identify relationships between attitudes/beliefs and compliance and practices. To identify the potential of social learning through linguistic and cultural mediation, we will draw comparisons between the two datasets. In order to identify explanations and solutions from within the Bangladeshi sociocultural context in identifying emerging themes, we will draw on the PEN 3 model[4, 5], which is unique amongst theories of health behaviour in its foregrounding of culture as the core determinant. The second analysis will draw upon cognitive semantic theory[6] to identify shared vs differing conceptualisations and their associated language choice and terminology use.

Validation of project findings will be completed using focus groups. A structured vignette[7] will be employed as a validation method. Participants will be invited to focus groups, where we will present and discuss a narrative about a typical UK Bangladeshi community’s experience of COVID-19 based on the emergent analyses – including some deliberately contradictory statements.


The project examines how Sylheti speaking UK Bangladeshis negotiate advice about social distancing crosslinguistically and crossculturally. At the 3 month stage, we will have insights into prevalent attitudes, beliefs and practices relating to notions of social distancing and whether and how these have been influenced by different types of advice. We will share these emerging findings directly with people and organisations currently supporting and communicating with UK Bangladeshis and seek their advice on the needs and knowledge gaps the study could address.

At the six month stage, as the analysis progresses to include insights into how linguistic choices influe­nce information sharing and understanding, we will share the early findings most relevant to these needs and gaps at a dissemination event for local and national stakeholders. Based on stakeholder feedback, the project team will work up initial guidance. After the project findings have been validated in focus groups, drawing upon key findings and the diverse expertise of the research team, we will develop a short animated film in Sylheti targeting the Bangladeshi community with messaging about social distancing and social learning in relation to COVID-19. As a participant driven output, its structure will provide an accessible knowledge framework and use language familiar and tailored to the linguistic resource of its audience.

At 12 months, we will launch the film and disseminate findings and guidance at an event for stakeholders and disseminate as community engagement through the channels we have identified as appropriate, including those with national reach – eg ethnic media.

Project status: Ongoing

Principal Investigator

  • Chris Tang

    Lecturer in International Education & Applied Linguistics



Funding Body: UK Research and Innovation (UKRI)

Amount: £170,566

Period: July 2020 - July 2021

Contact us

If you wish to know more about the project, please contact Chris Tang.