British Columbia

Here's why COVID-19 numbers have dropped among B.C.'s South Asian population

Community organizers in British Columbia are being credited with helping to bring down the spread of COVID-19 within the South Asian community.

Fraser Health official credits 'huge amount of commitment' from community

Dr. Madhu Jawanda volunteers with the South Asian COVID Task Force, one of the B.C. groups credited with helping reduce transmission in the community. (CBC)

Community organizers in British Columbia are being credited with helping to bring down the spread of COVID-19 within the South Asian community.

"There's been a huge amount of commitment from our partners ranging from Gurdwaras, schools, community agencies, businesses [and] media outlets to really support and come together to ensure there's culturally appropriate messaging and culturally appropriate advice," said Fraser Health CEO Dr. Victoria Lee.

B.C. doesn't track race-based COVID-19 data, but the Fraser Health Authority is home to the three municipalities with the highest concentrations of South Asians in the province — Surrey, Abbotsford and Delta. All three have seen a drop in COVID-19 transmission, with Surrey going from 6,486 cases in November to 2,911 in January. Delta saw a decline from 933 in November to 388 in January.

The South Asian COVID Task Force was initially formed in Ontario, but volunteers from B.C. quickly jumped on board.

WATCH | Grassroots groups help reduce COVID-19 rates in B.C.'s South Asian community:

The community’s role in reducing COVID-19 cases in B.C.’s South Asian population

3 years ago
Duration 2:13
After seeing a spike in COVID-19 cases in the fall, new restrictions implemented across British Columbia helped bring cases down in the Fraser Valley’s South Asian community, but the efforts by some grassroots organizations also played a significant role.

Dr. Madhu Jawanda said she and others wanted to help eliminate the "unconscious bias" they were seeing associated with rising case numbers in Fraser Health as people pointed fingers at the South Asian community. They didn't want that negativity to make the situation worse.

"We wanted to educate and empower people with knowledge so they could change the Fraser Health Authority trajectory," she said. 

Jawanda and her team got creative in making sure the messaging was getting across. They acted in skits for social media platforms, used TV and radio ads to run through ethnic media, made Tik-Tok videos and created graphics to forward through WhatsApp. They've made content in Punjabi, Hindi, Tamil, Gujarati and Bengali.

"The feedback we've gotten is [the community] sees themselves in the infographics. They feel heard and they feel like they understand the public health messaging," said Jawanda.

Messaging was tailored to various South Asian communities. This one addresses hospitality. (South Asian COVID Task Force)

UBC medical student Sukhmeet Sachal is a founder of the COVID-19 Sikh Gurdwara Initiative, which has primarily worked with the Punjabi community's elderly population.

"We started with teaching them about hand hygiene, masks and their importance and the need for physical distancing. Through all of this, we realized that sometimes, it's not even about the translations but rather about the fact that we care. We heard elders tell us that if youth care about us, we can care about ourselves too," explained Sachal.

Some of his team's work has been used in Edmonton, Ontario and even California. He also received a grant from the Clinton Foundation and Canada Service Corps.

Provincial restrictions helped too

Lee said, initially, there was a specific increase in cases in the South Asian population because so many people in the community are essential workers. But then summer brought on more social interactions — with the wedding season and other gatherings becoming a big issue. She said on top of the grassroots efforts, restrictions put in place for the entire province also helped with decreasing numbers in Fraser Health.

"The interventions initially focused on social gatherings and how to limit spread through those settings. We then expanded to broader public health measures as well as industry specific interventions," she said. 

Fraser Health is home to 75 per cent of B.C.'s South Asian population and, in his weekly briefing on Friday, provincial Health Minister Adrian Dix took the time to point out the health authority in particular.

"There has been significant work done there and we want to acknowledge that work and the overall reduction of cases back to the provincial average," he said. 

A sample of the posters and educational material distributed by volunteers with the COVID-19 Sikh Gurdwara Initiative shows the importance of following public health guidelines. (COVID-19 Sikh Gurdwara Initiative)


Anita Bathe

Host, CBC Vancouver News at 6pm

Anita Bathe is the host of CBC Vancouver's flagship newscast. She remains committed to working in the field, telling stories that matter and giving citizens a voice. Bathe is a multiple RTDNA award winner, a recipient of the Jack Webster Fellowship and she's won several BCAB awards for her in-depth reporting on breaking news. She also won the 2022 Canadian Screen Award for Best Local Host.