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Heriot-Watt University Creates Covid App to Support Malaysian Refugees

Michael Behr

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Heriot-Watt University

The new app is available in the Rohingya language to help keep refugees informed about the disease’s symptoms and preventative measures.

A new mobile app to help Malaysia’s refugee community access information on Covid-19 has been created by researchers from Heriot-Watt University.

The app has been developed in close partnership with Aspire Penang, an NGO based in Penang, Malaysia, which works closely with the country’s refugee community. The app was also created with the support of UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.

Building on previous research and collaborative workshops with the Penang refugee community, importantly including those from the Rohingya community, the new Covid app provides information about how to prevent Covid-19; symptom awareness; what to do if feeling unwell; and who to contact if needing help.

The app also allows immediate updates with regard to new local directives or other information relevant to the on-going Covid-19 situation.

Based on the input and feedback from the refugees themselves, messages are presented in a range of languages and utilise a graphic interface to maximise accessibility. Information is provided in both audio and written formats with maps showing the location of hospitals, clinics, and other places to go for help.

While there are few parts of the planet or its population that have been unaffected by Covid-19, it has had its greatest impact on societies’ most vulnerable groups. Refugees are especially at risk, as they lack health and sanitation infrastructure, such as PPE or water, and in many cases cannot isolate themselves from others.

Malaysia is estimated to be home to around 100,000 Rohingya refugees. According to UK Parliamentary reports, stigmas about the disease are discouraging Rohingya refugees from getting tested.

Professor Lynne Baillie from the Mathematical and Computer Science department at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh is leading the project in collaboration with Dr Gina Netto, an expert in ethnic minority and refugee communities from the University’s Urban Institute.

Professor Baillie said: “This work is vital to strengthen the support available to a particularly vulnerable group at high risk during the pandemic. Refugees in Malaysia face many challenges and the Rohingya people are among the most discriminated in the world.

“As a global university committed to addressing the many challenges faced by different groups during this pandemic, our app is designed to be as accessible as possible. It will help to limit the spread of infection as well as supporting refugee women, men and children with clear information on aid and safety systems available.

“Lives can be saved by building understanding about the symptoms and knowing when to seek help, therefore reducing the burden on front line medical workers and potentially overstretched government agencies.”

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A spokesperson from Aspire Penang welcomed the initiative from Heriot-Watt University, saying: “This has been a very positive partnership, with the engagement of the refugee community at the core of the design, development and testing of this app.

“It is a great example of an initiative which not only meets a particular immediate need but uses a methodology which integrates the initiative into the on-going, long-term, community-based work supporting refugee ownership and empowerment.”

The project was funded through the Global Challenges Research Fund, Department of Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and the Scottish Funding Council.

Michael Behr

Senior Staff Writer

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