A Voice for the Vulnerable
On a humid morning in late August, more than a dozen masked volunteers from Georgia State gathered around tables piled with essential pandemic supplies. They were there to assemble and distribute bags of masks, hand sanitizer and educational materials about COVID-19 to thousands of households across the city of Clarkston. For three consecutive weekends, the group visited apartment complexes across the city, handing out pandemic supplies to more than 5,500 households.
The volunteer project was spearheaded by the Clarkston Community COVID-19 Task Force, a group of community leaders, nonprofit groups and health professionals who saw an immediate need to help residents of Clarkston, which has a high population of resettled refugees, understand and fight the virus.
“Clarkston residents are more vulnerable to the pandemic because of a number of factors, including population density and a high rate of preexisting and chronic health conditions in the community,” says Mary Helen O’Connor, director of the Center for Community Engagement at Georgia State’s Clarkston campus and a member of the task force. “Many of the residents also are frontline workers who lack adequate health insurance and access to healthcare.”
For Andrew Kim, a family physician at Ethne Health, a nonprofit clinic in Clarkston, the downstream effects of the pandemic were already apparent in late March, when his patients began reporting more stress due to job loss or financial difficulties. Community members also lacked accurate information about how the virus is spread.
“Early on, we knew that Clarkston was not only high risk for spread of the virus but was arguably even higher risk to be hurt by the pandemic’s socioeconomic effects,” Kim says. “Throughout the pandemic, we have consistently had positivity rates over 20 percent, and some weeks the positivity rate was more than 50 percent.” (In contrast, in other parts of DeKalb County, the positivity rate is routinely under 10 percent.)
Kim realized that having objective data would be essential in getting needed resources into this community, and he approached O’Connor about the possibility of Georgia State conducting a study to more accurately understand how the pandemic was impacting the community.
Founded in 2018, the Center for Community Engagement brings Clarkston community members, nonprofits and faith-based agencies together with Georgia State researchers to work on issues important to the community. The center is also home to Georgia State’s multidisciplinary Prevention Research Center (PRC), which is focused on addressing the health disparities and community needs of migrants and refugees.
To address the concerns Kim identified, the Center for Community Engagement, the PRC and the university’s Adult Literacy Research Center collaborated on a survey to evaluate the social, financial and health needs of 128 refugees and 51 non-refugees in and around Clarkston.
“The three centers were interested in gathering information on families’ food and financial security, digital access, health and knowledge of coronavirus,” says Iris Feinberg, director of the Adult Literacy Research Center.
The data were collected in April and May by Perimeter College students and analyzed by Matt Lyons, a doctoral candidate in the School of Public Health, and Saiza Jivani, a research associate in the School of Public Health. They found compared to non-refugees, refugees were more likely to report losing income due to the COVID-19 pandemic and less likely to report being able to pay their bills that month. Nearly half of refugee respondents didn’t know where to obtain benefits, such as food stamps and rent assistance, during the pandemic.
While the pandemic supply distribution addressed an immediate need in the community, the survey will help local nonprofits better target their pandemic relief efforts, says O’Connor. COVID-19 educational materials in several different languages, including Arabic and Burmese and Nepali, have been created by the Adult Literacy Research Center. And free local COVID-19 testing is now available in the community.
The Center for Community Engagement, the PRC and an interdisciplinary team of faculty this fall will continue to identify projects and grant opportunities to address disparities identified by the study.
“Our hope is that with actionable and reliable data, the community can be better served by the agencies, government, community organizations and institutions working there,” O’Connor says.
Photos by Steve Thackston