Help for the helpers

CoVivre, an MI4-funded outreach program, strengthens the response to COVID-19 in at-risk communities by equipping existing organizations to better serve their clientele.
Image by Owen Egan / Joni Dufour.

One day the mother of a refugee family called a community health clinic in Park Extension, a Montreal neighbourhood that has seen one of the highest case counts of COVID-19 in the city. She had tested positive and was in bed with a fever, and her husband was in the hospital with severe respiratory failure. Her nine-year-old had to take care of the three younger children, including an infant. Meanwhile, there was no food in the house. What were they to do?

Dr. Cécile Rousseau, MSc’94, a professor in McGill’s Division of Social and Transcultural Psychiatry and a pediatric psychiatrist at the Montreal Children’s Hospital, works with the clinic. She says that although the team found a way to provide support, calling the boy twice a day to check up, and also bringing food to the home, that this required staff to go above their duties—an example of a strained system being asked to do even more.

In this case, all turned out well, with a full recovery by both parents, but Rousseau urges us to take such incidents as a wake-up call: “We need to help the helpers.”

Outreach initiative CoVivre is doing just that by offering funding and expertise to local organizations serving communities that have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

Its goals are to reduce the risk of infection and transmission, and mitigate the consequences of the pandemic.

It’s part of a country-wide initiative called CanCOVID, which is mandated by the Office of the Chief Science Advisor of Canada. The national program is working primarily to coordinate scientific evidence in the fight against COVID. A $1.16 million donation from the Trottier Family Foundation to the McGill Interdisciplinary Initiative in Infection and Immunity (MI4) via the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) Foundation is funding a partnership with CanCOVID.

CoVivre is the local, Montreal arm of CanCOVID and aims more specifically to bring down the rate of infections in marginalized communities with outreach and awareness, as well as psychosocial and mental health support. It began with the work of Rousseau, Alexandra de Pokomandy, MDCM’01, MSc’09, of the Department of Family Medicine, and CanCOVID cofounder Dr. Sarah Gallagher from Western University.

For Rousseau, supporting community groups makes a lot of sense, since they are a trusted and familiar resource. “They're doing an amazing job, but they are clearly underfunded,” she says. “After the first wave of COVID, they were crying for help and saying, we're getting burned out. So, the idea was to help these people do their job.”

She says CoVivre’s earlier data identified certain communities in the greater Montreal area that were more affected by COVID. “We based our intervention plan on this data and decided to target minorities, recent migrants and refugees. These were the people who have suffered from COVID-related discrimination and from all the collateral effects in terms of social isolation and economic losses,” says Rousseau, of the one-year program that began in the late summer.

The project is also trying to set the record straight on the disease and to correct how it’s being mischaracterized in some spheres on social media. Rousseau sees troubling connections between the spread of misinformation and the spread of the virus, saying conspiracy theories decrease respect for public health measures and increase the scapegoating of communities. “The idea is that if we want to reduce COVID-related discrimination, one of the ways to do this is by trying to mitigate conspiracy theories.”

To achieve this, McGill researchers are collaborating with teams from both Concordia and Université de Sherbrooke, as well as communications firms, to put out messages to counteract the misinformation.

CoVivre also addresses the psychosocial aspect of COVID by providing funding for more training for those offering what Rousseau calls psychological first aid. “The health system has been struggling with trying to keep the panic out while it struggles with treating physical cases of COVID. But in terms of mental health and the prevention of distress, that’s been very difficult to access.”

Rousseau says CoVivre is working as quickly as possible to implement its programs. “It needs to be done very quickly. It means that we have to do in months what's usually required in years.” That kind of rapid response and infusion of funds will hopefully mean that families like the one in Parc Extension can more easily access support without anyone having to scramble to provide it.



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