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(Dis)connection in times of social distancing

Naomi Whiteside, Tuba Boz, Vanessa Cooper, Hariz Halilovich,
Elizabeth Tait, Huan Vo-Tran

October 16, 2020

COVID-19 has presented a new and unique challenge for communities around the world. It has highlighted the importance of community resilience during a pandemic and the innate need people have to remain connected, even at times when we cannot physically be together. 

For many of us, digital technology has offered an important lifeline during COVID-19 — one just has to pause for a moment and imagine the different experience we would be having living through this pandemic only two or three decades ago, prior to the Internet being as we know it today.  Yet digital technology does not always result in positive outcomes. Not all communities have equal access to technology or equal levels of digital literacy. Further, not all activities can be easily transported online. 

In Australia, Melbourne has been at the epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic. The second wave in Melbourne saw the highest case numbers reported in local government areas having significant migrant and refugee communities. Migrant communities were reeling when public housing towers were locked down within hours during the second wave. For many Australians watching events unfold on the news, it has highlighted the challenges that these communities face.  

We are currently wrapping up a Melbourne-based research project which explores how young refugees use sports and arts to develop a sense of identity with peers from different cultural backgrounds. Our research shows that sports such as soccer, play a key role in building community connections and resilience.  One of our project participants noted, “I think football helps unite people, like through gatherings, getting close, easier to get connections, and friends, even makes your job relaxing”. Another elaborated, “…it’s good for you as well, health-wise and it gets you going you know? It sort of got me out of that phase of depression and yeah, I have stuck with the club ever since”. 

COVID-19 paused the project – some things like our final community arts and cultural event, just can’t go online. We check in with participants and reschedule as advice on restrictions comes to light. But as time passes, community enthusiasm is naturally waning. So, we asked ourselves, are migrant and refugee communities disconnecting during the pandemic? While our project wasn’t initially designed to focus on digital technology, it has uncovered the benefits and limitations of technology during the pandemic.

The pandemic has posed enormous financial challenges for soccer clubs in Melbourne who have had to shut down for months. One club member noted, “… more than ever before the club members realised the importance of having such place in their daily lives, where they can socialise and have a feeling of belonging. It will take a lot of effort to get the ball rolling again”.   

A soccer club participating in our project has a Facebook and Instagram group for the senior team that keeps players connected during the pandemic. It has become an important way to touch base, “…everyone checks up on each other to see how are things, to make sure everyone is trying to keep fit and not just sitting down and playing play station all day”. “… It has brought us even … closer because you know before, we would see each other two or three times a week and now we keep in touch almost every day…” 

Migrant support services are facing unprecedented demand during the pandemicStage 4 lockdown in Melbourne has had a significant impact on the way they connect with migrant and refugee communities. They have become a holistic support service for the communities they serve, ensuring no one falls through the cracks. As with the hospitality industry, they have had to pivot overnight, moving community outreach services online, transforming the way their organisations work.  

An important part of support service adaptation during the pandemic has been choosing the technology that stakeholder groups are comfortable with. Vicky Fisher, Team Leader, Settlement Services at the Migrant Resource Centre North West Region noted, “…we run a women’s group, and they were really comfortable with using Messenger… We tried several different platforms, but we found Zoom was the best platform for our [youth] group”.

The move online has enabled service providers to connect with community members who had never engaged with their services previously.  Many clients have a mobile nowadays, and they provide migrants with access to critical information. However, service providers can’t reach all their clients. Some face digital literacy challenges and others prefer face-to-face engagement. Some are conducting telephone welfare checks, ensuring communities have the support and connection they need to make it through this challenging time.

Organisations are now planning for a post COVID future where digital plays a key role in service delivery. The Footscray Community Arts Centre has done an assessment of their use of technology during the pandemic and is now developing a digital strategy for the future. Senior Producer, Bernadette Fitzgerald, notes that they’re asking themselves, “How do we overcome barriers to participation and also how do we work with… strategic visioning in what seems like a really challenging time? …we need to have that vision for the future that will …continue to engage the community and to be accessible in the digital domain“.

Most of the research relating to technology and disasters in Australia has focused on the bushfire context. The COVID-19 pandemic presents a different set of challenges. Further research is required to understand the role of technology in connecting communities and responding to a pandemic. The stories emerging from support services and migrant communities illustrate the challenges, but they also speak of resilience and connectedness – qualities we all need right now.

Photo credit: Tuba Boz, RMIT
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