Multilingual campaign aims to combat COVID misinformation, vaccine hesitancy

As Ottawa's COVID-19 case numbers continue to climb, public health officials are reaching out to communities, in their own language, to provide education and resources around vaccines. 

Ottawa Public Health reaching out to communities in their own languages

People arrive for their vaccine appointment at a COVID-19 clinic at the Nepean Sportsplex. Ottawa Public Health is running an outreach campaign in several languages to help combat misinformation and vaccine hesitancy. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

As Ottawa's COVID-19 case numbers continue to climb, public health officials are reaching out to communities, in their own language, to provide education and resources around vaccines.

It's all part of an outreach initiative by Ottawa Public Health (OPH) to combat misinformation about the illness and vaccine hesitancy.

"We believe that this type of engagement is very important because ... researchers have shown that there is a barrier to access information among many communities," said Saynab Xasan, a public health project officer with OPH's community engagement team.

OPH is holding various town halls in different languages that represent multiple communities across the city — English, French, Arabic, Mandarin, and Somali.

It has also released a video "Why I am choosing the vaccine" that features people giving their reasons in those languages.

A virtual town hall was held in Somali on Sunday with more than 50 people from the community taking part.

"We were able to successfully remove the barrier of language," said Asha Ali, a community nurse with Somerset Community Health Centre, who was also one of the panelists.

"Once they understood, they are very engaged and they ask questions like, 'we want to go and get vaccinated, which area can we go in our neighborhood?,'" she said.

She said Sunday's event ran long because there were a number of questions from community members and health officials wanted to ensure they were all addressed.

Diverse communities disproportionately affected

Ali is helping administer vaccines. She said diverse communities in the city have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, making access to information about the vaccine vital. 

"We know that if you speak to somebody in the language that they understand, they are more open to be trusting, understanding clearly," she said.

She said the Somali community is one of the largest in Ottawa and while many of them do speak English, a large number of seniors and newcomers only speak Somali. 

"Having these sessions in the language appropriate to their culture helps remove barriers in understanding of what's going on in terms of the vaccines, in terms of the risks of COVID-19 and when to get a vaccine," she said.

She said it is especially important to address misinformation about the illness and the vaccine.

On Sunday, questions ranged from how to book a vaccine to whether the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine was safe, depending on a person's age.

Xasan said those questions are common ones public health officials have been addressing through its outreach campaign, along with concerns about how quickly the vaccines were developed and dispelling myths making the rounds on social media and the Internet.

"I know that many members are feeling overwhelmed with [a lot of] diverse information, sometimes conflicting," said Xasan. "I think it's very important that we try to be as inclusive as possible so that we are able to ... reach the people that are in need of those information and resources." 

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