From balconies in New York City to the National Assembly in Kenya; across Spain, Italy, Turkey, Singapore, India, and many other nations around the world—some of the most inspiring images from the pandemic have shown leaders, celebrities, and everyday people clapping, ringing cowbells, and banging on pots to recognize and give gratitude to the health workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 response.

This global acknowledgment was heartening to see, considering that frontline health workers too often go unrecognized. Yet, they are playing a critical role in caring for those communities most effected by the pandemic, while at the same time risking their own lives. Especially in underserved communities, frontline workers like community health workers (CHWs) are helping vulnerable patients to reduce their risks by understanding symptoms and seeking testing and treatment early.

When the coronavirus hit the United States in early 2020, health officials in Minneapolis, Minnesota—including the clinical staff at the People’s Center, a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC)—had concerns about the potential for the virus to spread in the city’s Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. This area is home to the largest Somali population in the world outside of East Africa, and it includes many refugees who live in public housing. In fact, one high-rise building in the neighborhood has more than 4,000 residents, making social distancing a challenge and placing residents at higher risk of exposure.

But even with higher risk of contracting COVID-19 in their densely populated neighborhood, People’s Center staff discovered many residents didn’t want to get tested. Based on their experiences with health care in Somalia, staff found some local residents weren’t used to seeing a doctor for preventive care.

Social and cultural barriers like these aren’t unique to Minneapolis and its Somali American residents. Across the world, some of the most important factors contributing to poor health are rooted in social determinants of health, including the cost and affordability of care, language barriers, lack of experience with health systems, transportation needs, childcare, safety, and other social issues. Traditional health systems are often ill-equipped to address these barriers. So, now more than ever, CHWs are playing a significant role in bridging these gaps and helping underserved people access the healthcare they need.

Read the full article about healthcare into communities by Ahmed Sougueh and Jokho Farah at Stanford Social Innovation Review.