Racial equity in the emergency response: A culturally-informed and multilingual approach

By Aaron Lao and Belle Cheung

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed that we are not all in this together; rather, it has highlighted which communities are left behind in times of public health emergencies. Those who have been disproportionately impacted – including low-wage essential workers, seniors facing food insecurity, renters in substandard housing, and people who depend on social services or public transit – are more likely to be from racialized and ethnocultural communities.. These communities face very real and added impacts from disasters, including poorer socioeconomic conditions prior to the pandemic (Cheung, 2020), contracting COVID-19 at disproportionately high rates (Bowden & Cain, 2020), facing barriers accessing COVID-19 response measures (Owen, 2020), and suffering greater economic losses during lockdown (Hou, Frank, & Schimmele, 2020).

Worse, they are often left behind by emergency response efforts because of the barriers related to the languages they speak, the colour of their skin, the types of resources available to them, or other socio-economic factors faced on a daily basis. Further inequities exist among and within ethnocultural communities, with some groups –  especially those at the intersection of various marginalized identities – facing compounded barriers. The year 2020 has highlighted a growing recognition that racialized and ethnocultural communities have been – and now more than ever, continue to be – marginalized in emergency management, including planning and response efforts.

A new approach to emergency response: the Ethnocultural Communities Branch (ECCB)

This article shares the approach of the Ethnocultural Communities Branch (ECCB) of the City of Vancouver’s COVID-19 Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) from March to June 2020. Our experience illustrates how an emergency response grounded in a racial equity lens helps ensure a more effective and appropriate response, and lays the groundwork to further embed equity into resilience planning.

During the City of Vancouver’s COVID-19 response effort, staff recognized the need to support racialized and ethnocultural communities, alongside other priority groups such as Indigenous peoples and those living in shelters. A new team focused on racialized communities was created within the EOC: the Ethnocultural Communities Branch.

Literature on emergency response shows that different groups experience disasters differently. This is what can be referred to as “social vulnerability” (Etkin et al., 2010) – where certain social groups are already vulnerable prior to a disaster, are disproportionately impacted by crises and face more barriers during recovery.

Providing clear and accessible information during emergencies is essential to ensuring public health and safety. In a city like Vancouver that has a majority of visible minority residents, this includes engaging ethnocultural communities (e.g. the Vietnamese community), language communities (e.g. Punjabi speakers), and groups facing disproportionate barriers  (e.g. migrant workers and newcomers). These groups already experience greater vulnerability in normal circumstances (e.g. more likely to be low-income), and this is exacerbated in times of crisis.

A screen grab of the City of Vancouver’s translated COVID-19 landing page in Vietnamese.

At the centre of the ECCB was a simple strategy: to bring in City of Vancouver staff who have lived experience and existing relationships with racialized and ethnocultural communities to ensure that these communities are not forgotten or left behind by the emergency response. The ECCB brought together a representative group of staff from departments across the City of Vancouver with the cultural competencies, multilingual skills, and professional expertise working in seven of Vancouver’s largest ethnocultural and language communities (Chinese/Cantonese, Chinese/Mandarin, Punjabi, Filipinx/Tagalog, Vietnamese, Korean and Farsi).

The ECCB staff brought relationships with multilingual media, directors of neighbourhood houses, a roundtable of leading settlement organizations, grassroots organizations, influential faith leaders, community organizers, and more. These relationships also meant that communities were able to more openly identify their concerns to someone who understood them and spoke the languages they were most comfortable with. These well-grounded relationships also meant that communities were able to more openly identify their needs to people they trusted, resulting in the exchange of much richer information.

The ECCB model allowed staff to connect with communities with whom the City of Vancouver may not have a relationship, to hear about concerns on the ground that may never have reached the EOC, and most importantly, share multilingual information as quickly as possible in an evolving pandemic.

Lessons for a more equitable emergency response

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted systemic racism and inequities that have long existed and will continue to exist beyond the pandemic. The lessons learned from our experiences in the ECCB are not only applicable to other emergencies but must be adapted for each emergency response in order to truly help people in times of crisis.

  • Culturally-appropriate outreach. Through our outreach, community groups repeatedly stressed that the lack of accessible information and resources was a critical deficiency in the COVID-19 response. This lack of engagement is worrisome for populations already at-risk, and in some cases, is a matter of life or death. Equitable emergency response includes not only clear and accessible information in multiple languages (which is critically important for health information and public health guidelines), but also emergency response efforts that are culturally-appropriate and tailored to serve and respond to each community. 
  • Knowledge management. In some cases, the ECCB advised, enhanced, and amplified the response efforts of other teams in the EOC, whether by gathering information on the ground to supplement planning efforts, or by sharing translated resources through influential community leaders and culturally-relevant social media. 
  • Communications. At other times, the ECCB took on independent projects, such as hosting virtual multilingual town hall events with City of Vancouver leadership, compiling multilingual COVID-19 online resources in seven languages (Cantonese, Mandarin, Punjabi, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Korean, and Farsi), or organizing a Day of Action Against Racism campaign to combat hate arising from COVID-19.
  • Community Networks.  Community resilience requires trust and relationships. In a pandemic, it may not feel like there is enough time to move at the speed of trust, but we can jump-start the process by tapping into existing relationships and networks. A central, ECCB-like entity to support racialized and ethnocultural communities in an EOC ultimately advances equity across the emergency response effort. 

A more effective and more equitable approach to disaster response is possible. Building these critical relationships may be challenging, but they are a core part of resilience and crucial to whether a disaster response effort has reached everyone in our communities. In many cases, the coaches and leaders on this front may already be in our institutions – we just have to activate and support them by putting the right structures in place.


Bowden, O. and Cain, P. (2020) ‘Black neighbourhoods in Toronto are hit hardest by COVID-19 – and it’s ‘anchored in racism’: experts’, Global News, 2 June. Available at: https://globalnews.ca/news/7015522/black-neighbourhoods-toronto-coronavirus-racism/.

Cheung, J. (2020) ‘Black people and other people of colour make up 83% of reported COVID-19 cases in Toronto’, CBC News, 30 July. Available at: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/toronto-covid-19-data-1.5669091.

Etkin, D. et al. (2010) ‘Canadians at Risk: Our Exposure to Natural Hazards’, Assessment of Natural Hazards Project, February. Available at: https://www.preventionweb.net/files/13008_CanadiansatRisk20101.pdf.

Hou, F., Frank, K., Schimmele, C. (2020) ‘Economic impact of COVID-19 among visible minority groups’, Government of Canada, Statistics Canada, 6 July. Available at: https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/45-28-0001/2020001/article/00042-eng.htm.

Owen, B. (2020) ‘Community groups filling gaps in translation of COVID-19 information’, CTV News, 1 June. Available at: https://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/community-groups-filling-gaps-in-translation-of-covid-19-information-1.4963022.



Aaron Lao and Belle Cheung served as Co-Directors of the Ethnocultural Communities Branch in the City of Vancouver’s COVID-19 Emergency Operations Centre from March to June 2020. They have diverse experiences in community, urban, and cultural planning in Vancouver, located on the unceded territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and səl̓ilwətaɁɬ / sel̓íl̓witulh (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations.
Emails for reader correspondence:  aaron.lao@vancouver.ca and belle.cheung@vancouver.ca