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Denmark: COVID-19 and ethnic minorities - what works?

One year after the COVID-19 pandemic reached Denmark, a webinar gathered experiences and recommendations regarding residential areas with many ethnic minorities, arranged by KL - Local Government Denmark and BL - Danish Social Housing.

A large proportion of residents in Denmark from an ethnic minority background live in social housing projects, all over the country. This group has faced specific challenges and been a focus point during the pandemic, for a number of reasons:

  • Language barriers make communication more difficult;
  • Many have frontline jobs, exposing them more to the virus;
  • Many live in extended families and with more persons in one flat;
  • More people than in the average population suffer from chronic diseases, making them more vulnerable if they were to catch COVID-19.

Partly as a result of these factors, sudden rises in the  number of COVID-19 cases have been seen in some of the large social housing projects in Denmark. Some politicians have called attention to cultural differences and blamed ethnic minority groups for not taking precautions seriously; even accusing such individuals of destroying the efforts of the majority of the population to stop the spread. However, every time a sudden rise has occurred, local and focused efforts have brought the numbers down again very quickly.

Efforts have changed since the pandemic started, according to evolving needs throughout the whole period. At first, the challenge was in ensuring that every citizen received information on new restrictions, and up to date advice from the authorities on necessary changes to daily behaviour. During the pandemic's second wave, the most important issue was identifying sources of contamination and ensuring that everybody was tested as often as possible.

For this webinar, representatives from large municipalities and housing projects were invited to talk about their experiences and to share advice on best practices. A doctor from the Danish Patient Safety Authority was also present.

All participants agreed that huge efforts are being made every day by local communities, and that they need to be acknowledged for that. There was also common agreement that collaboration between all actors - the relevant municipality, social housing companies, local civil society and key residents - is crucial.

The Brøndby Strand housing company spoke about using young people as a special resource: young residents from different ethnic backgrounds have been making some very successful YouTube videos about how best to isolate, explaining things in a practical and simple way.

Large housing area Volsmose, in Odense, established a 'Coronavirus Task Force' in early 2020, connecting the municipality, local resources and organisations. When the area saw an acute rise in people testing positive recently, it was possible to react quickly and efficiently as a result of these connections: mobile test units were erected and quarantine flats were established inside the area, while a large number of local volunteers dissemintaed information and helped with practical tasks. In just one week, 8 000 residents had been tested and the number of infections significantly decreased.  

Copenhagen has established a 'Coronavirus School', and has so far educated 125 Coronavirus ambassadors. These are key persons invited to speak by local communities and groups, and their 'school' consists of a 2-hour webinar developed by the municipality and social housing companies, providing health information and proposing activities to minimise the spread of the virus.

The Danish Patient Safety Authority established a small team which has been working inside the city hall, together with municipality staff in areas with a high infection rate. This has proven very effective in terms of finding out exactly how and where contamination is occurring, through telephoning and speaking directly with people that test positive for the virus.

Two prominent cultural barriers were found among ethnic minority groups, the first being that young men in particular tend to see it as something shameful to be the one that contaminated one's family, and will therefore sometimes avoid taking tests. The second is a strong resistance to the use of quarantine facilities (e.g. free hotel rooms) that are separate from the family. However, the spreading of the virus has been found to most often occur as a result of a person being contaminated at work and bringing it home to their family, and this has no cultural angle as some politicians have implied. In fact, many people from a minority background in Denmark have taken great pride in helping however they could.

Good local-level practices identified at the webinar:

  • Establish a working group with representatives from the municipality, social housing companies, health professionals, local civil society and key residents;
  • Invite and use local resources: they have in-depth community understanding and the networks to communicate;
  • Use young people: they can explain and spread information on digital platforms in ways that are accessible, and in many languages;
  • Trust locals and civil society: educate them, give them responsibility and acknowledge their efforts;
  • Design special tools and actions for each area individually, as not all areas experience the same issues;
  • Information sharing via a 'bottom-up' approach is preferable to a 'top-down' approach in this context;
  • Social and cultural differences are not problematic: social housing projects often hold greater solidarity and enthusiasm, which are a big asset during a pandemic;
  • Information from the authorities should be better coordinated, and more accessible (e.g. in clear, simplified language).

Read more on this here.