Social isolation spiked during the early days of the COVID-19 — with ramifications for the health and wellness of our minds, bodies, and communities. These effects were amplified for newcomer communities who are already more likely to be isolated by factors like communication barriers, cultural barriers and the complex process of settlement in Canada.
In collaboration with Burnaby community agencies, Principal Investigator Dr. Surita Parashar and Research Advisor Anna Vorobyova, SFU Master of Public Health students Azra Bhanji and Catherine Trudeau conducted a participatory research project to address the impacts of social isolation on racialized newcomers in Burnaby.
This collaborative community research project was born out of a need identified by the Burnaby Primary Care Networks Social Isolation Working Group. With community agencies, family physicians, the City of Burnaby and Fraser Health around the table, the working group wanted to know: what could Burnaby community organizations do to address barriers to social connectivity? And how could they build on opportunities shared by newcomers to ideate innovative and sustainable solutions?
The BC Centre for Disease Control describes social isolation as the “disengagement from social ties, institutional connections, or community participation.” It is a known social determinant of health for many health conditions, including anxiety, depression, addiction, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and premature mortality.
Social connectivity is the opposite of social isolation. It is a sense of belonging to a group or community and is associated with having personal relationships and engagement with the broader community.
Over the course of several months from Fall 2021 to Spring 2022, research leads Bhanji and Trudeau engaged several cohorts of newcomers from different language-speaking groups — including English, Tigrinya, Farsi and Mandarin — with the aim of reaching some of Burnaby’s most isolated individuals.
By using photography as a research tool to spark group discussions, newcomers in Burnaby explored how COVID-19 has affected social connection, and the roles community organizations can have to help us feel more connected.
Participants shared experiences of disconnection from family, friends, and core supports, alongside feelings of loneliness and longing to visit the places they had left behind. They expressed that they had encountered barriers to connection such as unfriendliness and racism from other residents, fears around leaving the home or entering places they used to frequent and difficulties communicating and understanding spoken English without the visual aid of lip reading due to masking — to name a few.
The project culminated in a community celebration on Nov. 3 at the Ismaili Centre Vancouver, where research participants and community agency representatives gathered to discuss and share the results with the larger community.