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Burnaby partnership fights 'brain waste' during pandemic

Initiative connects newcomers who don't speak English with people who can help them navigate self-assessments and find government resources.
New Westminster city council is looking at COVID-19 as an opportunity to build a better community. Council has directed staff to develop a public engagement strategy related to the plan.

A global pandemic is no time to waste the medical knowledge of internationally trained doctors who haven’t been able to get their Canadian credentials, so an innovative new program operating in Burnaby is putting them to work.

The Burnaby Division of Family Practice has partnered with MOSAIC, a Lower Mainland settlement organization, on a program that links recent immigrants and refugees who don't speak English or don’t have access to computers or the internet to medically trained staff and volunteers who can help them navigate the city’s online COVID-19 screening portal at

Aptly dubbed Health Navigator, the program helps lead newcomers through a series of self-assessment questions to assess whether they need further COVID-19 testing.

MOSAIC has 17 staff trained in the Health Navigator program (two of whom are international medical graduates, or IMGs) and one IMG refugee who is volunteering his time.

“MOSAIC is being creative in involving IMGs’ knowledge and experience in the organization and through community collaborations to benefit the Canadian system,” said Zarghoona Wakil, co-manager of Health Navigator. “It’s important that their knowledge isn’t wasted; that we don’t add to the brain waste.”

Wakil is an international medical graduate herself.

Before coming to Canada as a government sponsored refugee in 2005, she was Dr. Wakil, a specialist in internal medicine.

She said she would have been frustrated if there had been no way to put her medical background to use for the community during the pandemic.

“I’m really passionate about taking part in this response because I’m Canadian,” she said. “Launching an initiative under the Health Navigator project to respond to that need is really fulfilling.”

When the Burnaby Division of Family Practice first announced its plans for an online COVID-19 self-assessment tool in early March, Wakil said MOSAIC pointed out barriers newcomers would face trying to access the tool.

“How would they know about this website in the first place,” Wakil said.

The division responded by partnering with MOSAIC on Health Navigator.

The partnership relies on medical clinics and settlement agencies to direct Burnaby-based immigrants to a dedicated phone line, where they leave their name, phone number and language-support needs.

The information is then relayed to staff where the person is matched to someone who can walk them through the online self-assessment process.

All told, they can provide support in more than 18 languages.

“Our partnership with MOSAIC is invaluable,” said Burnaby Division of Family Practice executive director Georgia Bekiou. “It helps us to make sure that we are culturally sensitive in responding to the whole narrative of patient population in a cultural way.”

So far, Health Navigator has helped more than 600 people since the end of March, according to Wakil.

Along with help navigating the online COVID-19 self-assessment, the program has also passed on vital information about the local COVID-19 picture and about emergency government help, including the Canada Emergency Response Benefit.

“People who do not speak English, they don’t have access to the updated information,” Wakil said.  “Every day, the B.C. government and Dr. Bonnie Henry provide local updates, but the immigrant population that we work with who don’t speak English, they only listen to the global media that’s in their language, and they don’t have local information and they don’t know what the situation is, so obviously we need to bring that message.”