In the early weeks of the COVID-19 lockdown, the staff at Across Boundaries, a centre that provides counselling programs to racialized communities in the Greater Toronto Area, realized they had a problem when it came to delivering virtual care: Of their 700 clients, many of them refugees and immigrants, almost 300 didn’t have access to a phone, or a data plan.
“That was quite a shock,” said Aseefa Sarang, the centre’s executive director – one the prompted a fundraiser for cellphones so counsellors could stay in touch. Ms. Sarang says she can see the wear and stress of the pandemic on those coming to the centre for emergency groceries. “People are beginning to look worn out and not as healthy,” she said. “We are quite worried about their mental health.”
The pandemic has increased mental-health issues across the Canadian population, but experts warn that immigrants and refugees may be even more at risk – struggling with the extra stress of settling in a new country and in many cases the trauma of what happened in their homelands. They are more likely to live in crowded apartments, and to work in lower-wage jobs that can’t be performed remotely, and they are disproportionately represented among staff at long-term care homes, where the deaths from COVID-19 have been concentrated.
These are all stressors that put them at higher risk of anxiety and depression. On top of that, community organizers say, the temporary closing of community centres, language-training classes and places of worship has further isolated many of their clients, who are less likely to have established friends and extended family to provide support.
Nii Tawiah Koney, who spearheaded a food bank for the Edmonton’s African diaspora, says losing a job has farther-reaching consequences because many people are sending money overseas to support family members. “You can’t pay your rent here but you are also thinking about loved ones across the ocean.”
Providing counselling has been complicated, not only by the reality that many newcomers to Canada don’t have easy access to the internet. There is also reluctance to talk about mental-health issues, says Bela Gupta, a family counsellor at the Calgary Immigrant Women’s Association, who typically has to help her clients overcome their fears that sharing private troubles will disrupt their status in Canada.
Finding a place to speak privately in close quarters has been another issue, says Summayah Poonah, the head of education and outreach at the Toronto-based Naseeha Youth Helpline, which serves Muslim youth. The helpline has seen a spike in calls, and an increase in hang-ups – counsellors take the latter as a sign that a family member has entered the room.
The helpline has also received calls from seniors citizens asking for flour or rice – while adults sometimes call the line, food insecurity was something that had never even registered in their statistics before the pandemic. “It just speaks to the desperation of people,” Ms. Poonah said.
According to a Statistics Canada survey published in May, 49 per cent of immigrants reported being very or extremely concerned about their own health compared with 33 per cent of Canadian-born adults. They were also significantly more likely to be very concerned about a family member catching COVID-19 – worries that were also found to be higher among immigrant youth.
Compared with Canadian-born adults, immigrants were more likely to say they were very or extremely concerned about domestic violence, family stress from being confined at home, and the preservation of social ties.
An April survey by the Vanier Institute of the Family found that immigrants who had been in Canada for fewer than five years were more likely to report sleep problems, sadness and mood swings since the pandemic started when compared with non-immigrant Canadians. In surveys, recent immigrants were also more likely to say that their finances had been negatively affected by the pandemic.
The unique experience of immigrants and refugees, community organizers say, requires targeted approaches, adapted to cultural needs and individual circumstances. “If we don’t do that work, we know what the outcome is going to be: They are going to get COVID more regularly, and they are going to die,” said Kwame McKenzie, chief executive of the Wellesley Institute, a Toronto research institute, and director of Health Equity at the Centre of Addiction and Mental Health. “One size fits all is not reasonable, and it is unethical.”
But creating those programs, he says, means working directly with communities on the ground – an approach that will also improve mental-health outcomes by giving people a sense of control and autonomy in stressful times.
Many of the initiatives started up during the pandemic are being lead by grassroots groups. As one example, the Edmonton food bank, a collective initiative involving a number of ethnic organizations, has been about using food to also deliver emotional support, Mr. Koney says.
Odeth Thompson, a local pastor and one of the volunteers, says a carefully chosen bag of groceries – one that contains items such as cassava flour and dried fish for traditional meals – is a way to let people know they aren’t alone. When clients are booking appointments for food pick-ups, she said, “I can hear the relief in their voices.”
One of those clients is Sidonia Lumpini-Luankadi, originally from Angola, who lives in a four-bedroom Edmonton home with her husband, four adult children and four grandchildren. Despite the challenges of living together during the pandemic, she is happy to have her family close.
But she has been laid off by the event company where she worked, and her husband has lost his delivery job. They are falling behind in their bills, including for the internet, which her grandchildren have needed for school. “It is a big problem,” she said. “I don’t know when I am going to pay it. Sometimes it is too much what I have to worry about.”
Still, even facing circumstances most Canadians would find difficult, refugees may be reluctant to complain. Musa Musa, a widowed father who arrived in Canada from Eritrea three years ago, has spent the lockdown with his six children in a two-bedroom apartment on the seventh floor of a Toronto high-rise apartment.
His family, he says, has even tried to maintain physical distancing in their small space and to rarely go outside. “We are following the rules,” he said. Indeed, compared with circumstances in his native country, he says he is just grateful to be in Canada, even if his family is jammed into a small apartment. He will only admit to one wish: a second bathroom.
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