Where you come from might say something about your risk of getting COVID-19. The most important thing is getting the right information about how to stay safe – in a language you understand.
48-year-old Aliye Tuerkyilmaz hits the markets and busy shopping streets of Neukölln three times a week to hand out flyers to residents of the busy Berlin neighborhood.
Tuerkyilmaz, who came to Germany from Turkey and speaks four languages, is part of a team of outreach workers enlisted to explain the dangers of COVID-19 to people who are often not reached through mainstream channels. She was interviewed in a report by the AP news agency. The need for information here is acute – Neukölln has had the highest infection rates in the city, but a low level of public awareness about the virus.
"Especially the older immigrants don't understand German, some are illiterate, and some are still not aware of the health risks and regulations regarding the pandemic,'' Tuerkyilmaz said as she walked through a Turkish food market along a canal where people had come to pick up fresh vegetables, chicken and bread.
Migration, population density linked to poverty
In this part of the German capital almost half of the population have a "foreign background." This compares with an overall rate of 35% with immigrant roots in Berlin, a city of 3.6 million.
The Neukölln district's number of coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents is currently at 4,828, (in March 2021) compared with a city-wide average figure of 3,575.
When the suburb became a hotspot in June 2020, some Germans felt vindicated in expressing their prejudices, as the Berlin daily paper Der Tagesspiegel (Daily Mirror) reported. "The 'foreigners' are to blame, because they don’t follow the rules and that’s how they infect one another," was a common perception.
A study published by the Berlin state health authority in February showed that migration background was an indicator, but its connection to COVID-19 risk was complicated. The study suggested that the districts worst-hit by the virus were those with more unemployment, a greater share of welfare recipients and lower household income. The incidence of COVID-19 rose in line with the percentage of people with a family history of migration and greater population density – factors which are linked to poverty.
"Migration is not the main reason for a higher risk of catching the virus, but it is an additional one,” Nico Dragano, a professor of medical sociology at the Heinrich-Heine University of Düsseldorf, explained in the AP report. Dragano has been studying the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on underprivileged parts of society.
The results of another Europe-wide study by the OECD showed that the risk of COVID for members of minority ethnic communities is twice that of the rest of the population.
One political "takeaway" from these studies was the importance of providing information in community languages. Podcasts, flyers and posters are now being produced in several languages for people in Berlin, and social media channels are being used to help non-German speakers keep up to date with coronavirus advice and regulations.
Sense of togetherness
It was the lack of information that was reaching residents in the early stages that prompted the formation of Tuerkyilmaz's "intercultural educational team," or IKAT, in September by the Berlin NGO Chance BJS in coordination with district officials, AP reports.
According to Kazim Erdogan, a local community leader with Turkish roots, the aim is for the team to be able to break through the lack of communication, which not only has to do with language barriers but also a deep distrust of German authorities, fed by a sense of nonacceptance.
"If we can't create a sense of belonging together in normal times, if people are existing next to or even against each other, then it is not possible to create this sense of togetherness now," Erdogan told AP.
Spreading the word
It's too early to say how much initiatives like the multilingual outreach workers' team have contributed to bringing down the virus numbers, but district mayor Martin Hikel said that anecdotally, unconventional ways of communicating with Neukölln's diverse communities have been important.
Hikel said many residents of his district don't read German papers or watch German television stations where constantly changing virus regulations, including lockdowns, school and store closures and reopenings, are reported daily, according to AP.
Neukölln has come up with a number of other initiatives to rectify this. City workers have painted basic rules of conduct during the pandemic – such as mask regulations – directly on pavements in bold letters and different languages. They've also created short multilingual videos detailing the risks of COVID-19 that feature different community leaders – including Erdogan – which can easily be shared on Facebook or via messenger services on smartphones.
"We try to spread the word on social media, through social workers and local associations," Hikel told AP, adding that local authorities are often a step ahead of state and federal officials with their outreach methods because they are more aware of the reality on the ground.
Izabella Grajkowski, a 34-year-old IKAT member with Polish roots, said people have generally been open when she approaches them in the streets. Topics that usually concern people the most when they talk to the team are the re-opening of schools, stores and restaurants and whether they are allowed to travel abroad to visit relatives.
One of the other main questions is when and how people will be able to get vaccinated, according to Tuerkyilmaz. "The elderly have already been getting invitations for the vaccinations explaining how to register online," she told AP. "But everything is in German only – they don't understand it and don't know what to do. It's difficult."