COVID-19 as a social disease: qualitative analysis of COVID-19 prevention needs, impact of control measures and community responses among racialized/ethnic minorities in Antwerp, Belgium

Christiana Nöstlinger, Ella Van Landeghem, Jef Vanhamel, Anke Rotsaert, Lazare Manirankunda, Charles Ddungu, Thijs Reyniers, Deogratias Katsuva, Jana Vercruyssen, Stef Dielen, Marie Meudec

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BACKGROUND: In high income countries, racialized/ethnic minorities are disproportionally affected by COVID-19. Despite the established importance of community involvement in epidemic preparedness, we lack in-depth understanding of these communities' experiences with and responses to COVID-19. We explored information and prevention needs, coping mechanisms with COVID-19 control measures and their impact on lived experiences among selected racialized/ethnic minority communities.

METHODS: This qualitative rapid assessment conducted in Antwerp/Belgium used an interpretative and participatory approach. We included migrant communities with geographic origins ranging from Sub-Saharan Africa, North-Africa to the Middle East, Orthodox Jewish communities and professional community workers. Data were collected between May 2020-May 2021 through key informant-, in-depth interviews and group discussions (N = 71). Transcripts were analyzed inductively, adopting a reflexive thematic approach. A community advisory board provided feedback throughout the research process.

RESULTS: Participants indicated the need for tailored information in terms of language and timing. At the start of the epidemic, they perceived official public health messages as insufficient to reach all community members. Information sources included non-mainstream (social) media and media from home countries, hampering a nuanced understanding of virus transmission mechanisms and local and national protection measures. Participants felt the measures' most negative impact on their livelihoods (e.g. loss of income, disruption of social and immigration support). Economic insecurity triggered chronic stress and fears at individual and family level. High degrees of distrust in authorities and anticipated stigma were grounded in previously experienced racial and ethnic discrimination. Community-based initiatives mitigated this impact, ranging from disseminating translated and tailored information, providing individual support, and successfully reaching community members with complex needs (e.g. the elderly, digitally illiterate people, those with small social networks or irregular legal status).

CONCLUSION: Study participants' narratives showed how coping with and responding to COVID-19 was strongly intertwined with socio-economic and ethnic/racial characteristics. This justifies conceptualizing COVID-19 a social disease. At the same time, communities demonstrated resilience in responding to these structural vulnerabilities. From a health equity perspective, we provide concrete policy recommendations grounded in insights into communities' structural vulnerabilities and resilience.

Original languageEnglish
Article number67
JournalInternational Journal for Equity in Health
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2022


  • Aged
  • Belgium
  • COVID-19/prevention & control
  • Ethnic and Racial Minorities
  • Ethnicity
  • Humans
  • Minority Groups


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