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Guest blog: What can we learn from the COVID-19 response in supporting migrant and minority ethnic populations?

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This guest blog summarises the findings from an expert review for the Scottish Government Coronavirus (COVID-19) Learning and Evaluation Oversight Group. The study was led by Dr Paulina Trevena, with Dr Anna Gawlewicz and Professor Sharon Wright of the University of Glasgow in collaboration with the charities Feniks, Black and Ethnic Minority Infrastructure in Scotland (BEMIS) and the Scottish Refugee Council (SRC). This rapid-response research was based on a review of academic and grey literature, secondary analysis of data from the Migrant Essential Workers project, and new interviews with stakeholders, mainly from the third sector. The study was funded by the Scottish Government Coronavirus (COVID-19): Learning and Evaluation Oversight Group. The full report is available here.

As with all guest blogs, what follows are the views of the author and not those of SPICe or indeed the Scottish Parliament.

Migrant and minority ethnic communities face bigger challenges in accessing public services than the general population, such as a language barrier, lack of understanding of available support structures, or legal status. COVID-19 and the introduction of a national lockdown in the UK and Scotland exacerbated these barriers. With many essential services (for example local council offices, GP practices or advice bureaus) closing doors to the public and shifting to remote service provision, the language barrier and digital exclusion became especially problematic. At the same time, the pandemic hit the most vulnerable groups, such as asylum seekers and refugees, especially hard. How did public and voluntary services respond to this issue? 

Crisis response

When the pandemic struck, third sector organisations working with migrant and minority ethnic communities immediately took a targeted approach to supporting these communities. This was in response to the approach initially taken by the public sector, where whole-population emergency COVID-19 response measures were prioritised. While understandable, this had resulted in certain gaps which third sector organisations stepped in to fill, scoping most urgent needs within minority communities and responding to these very quickly

Significantly, voluntary organisations played a crucial role in reaching communities with vital public health messaging, simplifying, translating, and sharing it in an accessible way. The third sector representatives who took part in the study felt they had essentially taken on a public duty to ensure communities were informed about the changing public health guidelines and vaccination.

Voluntary organisations bore the brunt of reaching out to, supporting, or facilitating access to support for migrant and minority ethnic populations during the pandemic. Meanwhile, some public services (such as frontline local council services) were seen as largely withdrawn and inaccessible by our study participants, even though they may have played an important role in the pandemic response behind the scenes. The withdrawal of usual public services had knock-on effects for both service users and voluntary support organisations.

Why was the third sector able to respond fast?

Scottish Government funding and emergency-response changes to certain support guidelines (for example to facilitate financial support for people with no recourse to public funds) were crucial in enabling organisations – both in the public and third sector – to deliver effective emergency responses. However, third sector organisations supporting migrant and minority communities were much better placed than mainstream public services to provide a fast and effective response to these communities.

Above all, as opposed to most public services, our review found that voluntary organisations already had established relationships with, and knowledge of, the migrant and minority ethnic communities they served. They had established channels of communication which they could expand during the pandemic, and they were able to carry out broad outreach and provide accessible communication – in community languages and different formats. They were very creative in doing so, from producing and widely sharing short information videos to using WhatsApp audio for messaging clients.

In addition, our review found that third sector organisations typically had more flexibility than public services at organisational level. There was less regulation in the voluntary sector which allowed for more independent decision-making, adapting service provision to fit needs (including use of personal IT equipment or sourcing new equipment), and finding new ways of ensuring GDPR protocols are followed in the process.

The successful crisis response by third sector organisations would not have been possible without the high levels of commitment among paid staff and unpaid volunteers. However, such commitment and level of support are not sustainable in the longer-term.

Learnings from the pandemic

The pandemic response brought about many innovations and useful learning for future service provision.

One of the biggest effects of the pandemic was the large technological leap it resulted in. Service providers developed many innovations at strategic and operational level, which can be continued and benefitted from beyond the pandemic. Remote service delivery proved very successful, and in some cases preferred by both service providers and service users (though importantly, it cannot completely substitute face-to-face support). Moving work meetings online appeared a convenient solution, saving time and travel costs for staff (especially in rural areas), and facilitating partnerships between different geographic areas.

For service users, a concerted effort on the part of the Scottish Government and support organisations resulted in rapidly increased levels of digital inclusion and IT skills development, which should have a positive impact on other areas of their lives. Social and creative activities provided online proved highly beneficial for supporting service users’ mental health. 

A co-ordinated approach to solving problems and partnership working were crucial to providing an effective crisis response. Innovative ways of distributing funding among charitable organisations during COVID-19 – promoting working in partnership rather than competing for funds – removed barriers to collaborations within the third sector. Operational, needs-based partnerships spanning the public and third sector proved highly beneficial. They allowed for pulling resources together, strengthening outreach and capacity, and addressing needs in a solution-focused, holistic way.

Our review found that the grounding for an effective crisis response is built before a crisis. Having established relationships of trust, outreach channels and using targeted communication are essential in supporting minority communities. In addition, we found that a strategic approach to increasing inclusivity of public service provision is needed, and this can be informed by pandemic learning.

Moving beyond the pandemic, one of the major issues that came up in our review is the need to consider continued funding for public and third sector service provision for migrant and minority ethnic populations in Scotland. Many organisations received emergency funding when the pandemic hit and this largely buffered the immediate impact of the crisis. However, necessary ongoing funding remains a serious concern both for public and third sector organisations.

Dr Paulina Trevena, University of Glasgow

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