The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the critical need for timely and accurate health information delivery, especially when in-person interactions were limited. Local health departments, health clinics, and other service providers shifted to virtual forms of communication to disseminate COVID-19 prevention and mitigation guidance. While this approach effectively reached many, it posed unique challenges for refugee, immigrant, and migrant (RIM) communities in the U.S.—who were already disproportionately impacted by the negative effects of COVID-19—due to language barriers, preferred information channels, and inconsistent internet access.
The International Rescue Committee (IRC) initiated multi-tiered digital efforts to try to address these challenges and empower RIM community members with accessible and trusted information. Specifically, IRC in Tucson and Sacramento implemented mass messaging campaigns via WhatsApp and the TextIt platform to deliver COVID-19 mitigation and prevention guidance, IRC’s Settle In Facebook page was utilized to provide COVID-19 health updates through social media posts, live sessions, and videos, and IRC in Sacramento and Spokane initiated Virtual Health Education Classes for newly arrived refugees.
Mass Digital Messaging – SMS and WhatsApp
During the COVID-19 pandemic, IRC in Tucson and Sacramento utilized mass messaging to disseminate critical health-related information and updates directly to client’s mobile devices. After an in-depth assessment, IRC learned that clients preferred:
- Using digital platforms that could operate on Wi-Fi, making communication available in free Wi-Fi locations when clients did not have cellular minutes available
- Messages that include photos and audio, which can be saved for offline viewing and that are accessible to people with limited literacy
- Two-way communication that allowed clients to ask follow-up questions and participate in discussions
IRC offices ultimately decided to use WhatsApp and SMS via TextIt platforms as both met the above-preferred requirements. IRC Staff reached out to clients to obtain their permission to communicate with them through these platforms and let them know that when they received communication from the IRC number, the message had been vetted for health information accuracy. Staff then worked with identified bilingual and bicultural staff, as well as professional translators, to draft SMS messages, informational flyers, and audio messages when new and important COVID-19 guidance or information was released by the CDC and local health departments. Topics included mask mandates, vaccine approval and availability, and the end of stay-at-home guidance. Messages were short and in the preferred RIM community language so they could be iterated quickly and released in a timely manner.
Settle In Facebook, a digital platform developed by the Cultural Orientation Resource Exchange (CORE) and managed by IRC, uses both a web presence and social media to engage and empower RIM communities. Text posts, social media, graphics, and video messages are placed regularly on the Settle-In Facebook page to provide community members with essential information about a wide variety of topics including health. RIM community members can ask questions, seek clarifications, and actively participate in discussions through comments, private messages, or during live sessions hosted on the platform, while trained digital moderators are able to reply to posts and answer questions.
Leveraging social media allows IRC to reach a broader RIM audience while having trained digital moderators allows for dynamic community engagement. Because social media platforms like Facebook have in-depth analytics, it has also allowed greater insights into what communication is effective, allowing IRC to tailor and refine messages over time.
While the Settle In social media model offers substantial advantages, it can be a time and resource-intensive endeavor. Specialized training for staff or volunteers managing the social media presence may be needed, potentially including the need for a moderator, to ensure effective platform navigation, cultural sensitivity, and appropriate responses to community inquiries and discussions. The development of a wide array of linguistically accessible materials across a wide range of topics and in multiple formats demands careful planning and allocation of resources to ensure effective engagement with RIM communities.
Virtual Health Education Classes
IRC in Sacramento and Spokane offered a virtual health education program to address the need to provide more in-depth health information to newly arrived refugees who were not able to meet in person due to pandemic in-person restrictions. The classes were delivered through video conferencing platforms such as Zoom. Because participants joined for multiple sessions, more complex health topics could be discussed with participants. The group format helped build a sense of community and trust among participants and facilitators through virtual sessions that fostered open dialogue. Participants also cited that classes being online reduced barriers such as childcare and transportation making it more convenient to attend classes.
However, to effectively offer online classes requires pre-work from the organization. Both IRC Sacramento and Spokane needed to assess participants’ access to hardware and internet and help provide supplies and support when needed. In addition, they conducted several digital literacy classes before the workshops began and spent the first part of each class doing some brief digital literacy instruction. At times, staff needed to schedule and provide one-on-one support with patience and cultural sensitivity, considering varying literacy levels and language barriers. Organizations are advised to address potential barriers in accessing technology through careful planning to ensure proper resources are budgeted for and staff hired to facilitate the educational classes.
Digital communication offers a path to address health equity and dismantle barriers to accessing accurate and timely health information among RIM communities. Beyond their immediate utility during the COVID-19 pandemic, these tools represent a sustainable solution that reduces the need for resource-intensive setups like physical venues. Catering to diverse needs, they ensure RIM communities can access vital health information irrespective of geographical or socio-economic circumstances, underscoring the transformative potential of digital platforms for future health promotion initiatives.