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U of T Students Fill the Misinformation Gap with Trackers and Toolkits

July 6/2020

By Françoise Makanda, Communications Officer at DLSPH

A self-directed student-led organization, the Infectious Disease Working Group is responding to misinformation and public health communication gaps through an online resource portal.

Their latest endeavour is a resource tracker: ReConnect, a community resource navigation tool that allows users to locate essential supports such as mental health, employment, training, and childcare in their communities.

“There is a clear and emergent need to support communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and its associated socioeconomic ramifications,” says Kahiye Warsame, a recent MPH alumnus in the Social and Behavioural Health Sciences stream and co-lead of the IDWG. “Our tool aims to bridge the gap in navigating social care systems by centralizing available services and supports on one platform.”

Unfortunately, the tracker also highlights the uneven distribution of social resources across Toronto. Areas outside of the downtown core have higher rates of COVID-19 cases but also have fewer resources and services.

“If you look at these areas in Toronto where there are fewer resources but greater COVID-19 case rates, they are also the neighbourhoods with a higher proportion of Black and racialized communities, a higher proportion of low-income earners and unsuitable housing, higher rates of chronic illness and poor mental health. This is clearly systemic racism permeating through our city that the government needs to address,” says Harsh Naik who recently graduated from the Epidemiology stream.

The findings came to the group after working with partner 211 Toronto to compile the tracker.

“It’s one thing to say, ‘look, Toronto has a lot of different resources and you can reach out – It’s just a phone call away or it’s right by a transit line’ – but it’s really different to see it geographically distributed”, says Kathleen Qu, an alumna of the Epidemiology program at DLSPH. “You’re able to pick up more of the gaps in the physical barriers that are presented or even the cultural and social barriers between different neighbourhoods.”

To fill the gap, DLSPH students, now alumni, have been working with community-led groups like CareMongering to include additional informal services. The tracker is updated regularly as the services become available. The group’s Community Engagement team – Evelyn Ascencio,  Joseph Burley, Tara Faghani, Vhil Castillejos, Mauriene Jean, and Yasmin Sheikhan – have developed this tool and have engaged with multiple stakeholders for its dissemination and uptake. Should there be enough support, the group would be interested in expanding the tracker to all of Ontario.

This initiative is one of the Infectious Disease Working Group’s latest resources. The group’s founders – Yulika Yoshida-Montezuma, Kahiye Warsame, Ashley Mah, Camilla Michalski, Anindita Marwah, Maura Eswaradas, Nousin Hussain, Kathleen Qu and Harsh Naik – all direct its operation. As news swirled about the novel coronavirus in early January, Yoshida-Montezuma and Warsame felt compelled to respond to misinformation using the knowledge they learned at DLSPH.

The IDWG Group Founders (Top left to right) Kahiye Warsame, Yulika Yoshida-Montezuma, Ashley Mah, Camilla Michalski, Anindita Marwah, Maura Eswaradas, Nousin Hussain, Kathleen Qu and Harsh Naik.

“The Working Group is a collaborative effort that includes students from Epidemiology, Social and Behavioural Health Science, Occupational Health and Indigenous Health. It’s a very interdisciplinary group. We want to help dispel myths, raise awareness and promote health equity through the various committees that we have including knowledge translation and community engagement,” says Yoshida-Montezuma, a graduate of the epidemiology stream.

Mah, Michalski, and Hussain have been focused on developing the group’s educational content and communication strategies along with the help of first-year students. They are involved with pitching timely themes as they have a pulse on what is needed and relevant, says Hussain. They turn it into informative and neatly-designed social media posts to educate their audience on a wide range of topics – from how to run safely in the city to proper PPE use for example.

First-year students source the content, or the group takes in audience requests, often vetting the materials through a second eye or an external resource when additional expertise is needed before publishing it, says Mah.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, as everyone was talking about numbers and the fatality rate, we realized that social distancing was the new norm and it was going to take a huge mental health toll,” says Hussain.

The material has also been used to develop an educational toolkit which helps reach an even wider audience: “How do we use appropriate language when we’re talking to our audience? How do we make the message clear, concise and easy to understand? I’m sure that a lot of our team would say that it’s been a great learning experience to be able to create these posts,” says Mah.

Each week, Marwah and Eswaradas have been focused on screening and summarizing in lay terms the most recent and relevant scientific literature on COVID-19 for articles.

Marwah and first-year students have been also collaborating with outlets across Toronto to publish op-eds written through the students’ perspective about important pandemic-related topics, such as student mental health.

In the coming weeks, the group will be hosting a webinar on the resource tracker to showcase its added benefits and involve diverse stakeholders. The team is also organizing a virtual conference that will bring together field experts and community leaders to delve further into topics such as the social determinants of health and mental health and COVID-19.

While there are more than 25 members, the founding members will be moving into advisory roles after the summer. As alumni, many have taken up roles in public health organizations and hospitals. Hoping to pass the baton, they’re accepting applications for the next cohort of students who would like to learn more about infectious diseases and health equity.

“It’s bittersweet to see how far this group has come but also to recognize that it’s time for it to flourish with the next generation of students. We would like to promote the group or to get an even larger collection of people who would like to be involved,” said Yoshida-Montezuma.

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