Students combat COVID-19 misinformation in multilingual communities

COVID Speaks executive explain the mechanics of their public health campaign

COVIDSpeaks has launched an accessible public health campaign in nine languages.
Supplied by COVID Speaks

Amid circulating misinformation and vaccine hesitancy, COVID Speaks, a student-led initiative, aims to promote accurate and scientifically verified information related to the COVID-19 pandemic in a range of languages. 

COVID Speaks was formed by Queen’s students Andrew Dam and Anwar Subhani, both HealthSci ’24. The initiative aims to increase awareness of pandemic-related health measures and public health announcements across Canada.

Although a majority of the executive team members are Queen’s students, some members attend other postsecondary institutions, including the University of Calgary and the University of Toronto.

To improve accessibility, the organization translates public health information into nine different languages: English, Mandarin, Cantonese, Punjabi, Tagalog, Arabic, Hindi, Farsi, and Urdu. Translations are performed by a team of COVID Speaks executives who have native linguistic and cultural proficiency in each of the languages.

The Journal spoke with members of the COVID Speaks executive team about its mission to promote COVID-19 public health messaging in immigrant communities.

“The inspiration for Andrew and I was that we noticed there was a lot of misinformation going around, and we felt that immigrant communities were more vulnerable because most of the COVID messaging is in English,” Subhani told The Journal.

“Coming from an immigrant family, I see first-hand how rumours shape the perception of the pandemic,” Dam said. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the landscape of race relations across the globe. Canadians have observed an increase in blame directed towards marginalized communities. This has impacted how public health measures are enforced with racialized folks often being disproportionately targeted. 

According to Dam, rhetoric and verbiage surrounding COVID-19 has only brought out racism that was less pronounced against East Asian communities in the past.

“[Asian hate crimes] extend not only to this pandemic, but they are being exacerbated by this pandemic,” Dam said.  “In the past, I have heard comments like ‘go back to your country,’ ‘you should be eating rice.’ The pandemic has exposed a lot of these issues, and now they are at the forefront.”

To promote accurate public health campaigns, the organization drives viewership through various online platforms including YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram. 

“We don’t only post to one account [...] certain social media platforms are more popular amongst certain immigrant communities and age demographics,” Punjabi Language Executive Aikam Rai, HealthSci ’24, said.

The COVID Speaks team also ensures their messaging can be accessed by persons with disabilities. 

“There is a focus to have more than one form—so audio, visual and also text-based allows better accessibility,” Farsi Language Executive Amir-Ali Golorkhian-Sani, HealthSci ’24, explained.

To be certain their information is factually accurate and credible, the COVID Speaks team collaborates with various healthcare professionals.

“Our executive members reach out to healthcare professionals who speak their respective languages, whether that be nurses, doctors, pharmacists, or anyone that has something important to say about the pandemic,” Subhani said.   

For some executive members, COVID Speaks is an opportunity to connect with their culture. 

“I speak Iraqi, which is a specific dialect of Arabic. With this organization I have been teaching myself Arabic, and I have had to work with my parents on the accent, wording and writing of Arabic,” Arabic Language Executive Leyan Al-Mashita, HealthSci ’24, explained. 

For international students like Hindi Language Executive Simran Dhaliwal, HealthSci ’24, the organization has provided them with the chance to apply their bilingual skills in the health sector. 

This month, COVID Speaks’ executives will explore adding more languages to their campaign.


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