The biggest weapon all of us have in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic is access to accurate information. We need accurate information to protect ourselves and our loved ones, to identify and treat the disease, and to find a vaccine or cure for the disease. Although there is so much information out there, some people cannot access it and, consequently, are at a disadvantage.
This worldwide health emergency has brought many language access problems in healthcare to light. The non-profit news publication ProPublica surveyed 11 New York City health care workers about their experiences caring for non-English speaking coronavirus patients. “They’re worried that language barriers will leave immigrants with COVID-19 in a particularly dire situation: alone, confused, and without the appropriate care,” reports ProPublica.
However, in this article, we are going to focus on the silver lining. Translators, interpreters, linguists, universities, and non-profit organisations (involved in medicine and linguistics) across the world are taking the initiative to solve these issues and close the communication gap.
Singaporean medical graduate builds a Bengali translation website in 8 hours
Sudesna Roy Chowdhury, a graduate of the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, was volunteering as a Bengali interpreter when she realised that the COVID-19 medical staff needed a more efficient solution. She roped in her sister, an emergency doctor, and the rest of her family for setting up a translation website.
Sudesna’s website mainly aimed to:
Her sister helped Sudesna compile some basic questions and phrases the medical staff use to make diagnoses so that she could enter Bengali translations for those. That achieved the first goal. Sudesna managed to gather around 13 translators, most of whom are her childhood friends, for interpretation.
Sudesna’s website received a positive response – within hours of the website going live, her sister’s colleagues and their friends started inquiring about it and spreading the word. She received emails appreciating her initiative, saying that the website helped doctors manage their time efficiently between ‘low-risk’ patients and serious cases.
Other language speakers have also eagerly approached Sudesna, offering to help with medical interpretation and translation for Sinhalese, Telugu, Tamil, Hindi, Malayalam, Mandarin, and Malay.
Researchers find ways to improve governance for linguistically diverse communities
Since the coronavirus was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO), we’ve all been receiving fake or incorrect information about the disease via various channels like social media, emails, Whatsapp messages, etc. Misinformation does nothing but fuel mass anxiety and panic. And this is why Professor Harith Alani of the Knowledge Media Institute at the Open University, UK, is collecting false coronavirus stories along with his team.
Their project, called Health Emergency Response in Interconnected Systems (HERoS), aims to analyse how some European and Asian cities and countries are handling COVID-19 concerning public communication. This will eventually help them understand how the pandemic can be dealt with with improved governance.
However, the project focuses on the official languages of the countries, thereby not considering the citizens who speak non-official languages. Sharon O’Brien, a professor at Dublin City University in Ireland, and her team is working on a project called INTERACT (International Network on Crisis Translation). The project aims to discover how governments are communicating with their culturally and linguistically diverse communities who are at a higher risk of being infected.
“Globally, few crisis policies acknowledge that communication needs to be in more than official languages to reach a country’s multicultural, multilingual population quickly,” says Sharon.
Internews COVID-19 is also supporting the cause against misinformation and fake news by providing verified information for journalists and citizens.
UK journalist helps fellow Punjabi speakers access COVID-19 information
A global pandemic requires efficient communication on a global level. So, British Pakistani Saima Mohsin decided to create her own COVID-19 resources in Punjabi and share them with her Twitter followers. These resources include videos about the serious nature of the disease, essential prevention techniques, and social distancing, and more. Given the fact that many Punjabi speakers live in multi-generational households, she also discussed how they could practice social distancing in this situation.
While social media has helped her in making a difference to the general COVID-19 awareness ratio of people, she does acknowledge that those of us who do not use social media are at a disadvantage. On this front, she appreciated the governments’ initiative of playing public service announcements every time you call someone. For instance, when you call someone in India, you hear the COVID-19 announcement in the local language of the receiver’s region. This helps them communicate with those who don’t use social media or do not have internet services in their area.
Community-led groups do their bit to help out the vulnerable sections of society
Non-profit organisations and community groups across the world are doing the admirable work of translating and interpreting for a section of the society which is at a disadvantage with incorrect or no COVID-19 information.
The British Somali Medical Association (BSMA), a voluntary non-profit organisation, was created for and by medical professionals to improve healthcare access to the Somali community. The coronavirus has had a terrible impact on the Somali community. So, the BSMA took the initiative to ensure a free flow of all the essential COVID-19 information that help Somalis become aware of preventive measures. The group is releasing videos and conducting webinars to communicate via audio or video format effectively.
Another such community-led group is Roma Support which creates content targeting Romanes specifically. They, too, have been creating and sharing informative videos, in Romane, on their social media channels. Moreover, they are sharing this information and helping out charitable organisations in reaching out to the Romane-speaking community.
If you have questions about #COVID19 or needs you have as a result of #Coronavirus, call us by dialing 211 from any phone in #Massachusetts. Available 24/7 with translation in 150+ languages.— Mass211 (@Mass_211) April 13, 2020
Online at: https://t.co/OryTqSwFi9
Info from @MassGov online at: https://t.co/0p2dGAXR7h pic.twitter.com/OAioMKWQHm
Mass211, a centralised hub for providing information and referrals to the local resources of all Massachusetts communities, is helping people get correct information about COVID-19. They’re receiving COVID-19 related questions on their website and on-call in more than 150 languages.
Proud to have helped launch Academic Public Health Volunteer Corps w/ 9 public health programs. Students are trained + connected to local health dept. to assist w/ case tracing, public messaging & translation! #ThankYouPublicHealth for answering the call! https://t.co/vxki79JzKR— MAPublicHealthAssoc (@MAPublicHealth) April 11, 2020
Based on a survey they conducted in more than 300 communities, the Massachusetts Health Officers Association prioritised language needs. They are training student volunteers to help with translating and interpreting for those who don’t speak English.
#PKU alumni Lin Zhe and Han Yiyang have been volunteering in a translation team to provide the latest #COVID19-related information for Arabic, Turkish, and Urdu speaking areas. They wish their efforts could help medical institutes save more local lives. pic.twitter.com/hyZUmmRs1h— Peking University (@PKU1898) April 13, 2020
Peking University, located in Beijing, is one of the major research universities in China. Their students and alumni are volunteering to translate COVID-19 information into multiple languages, including Turkish, Arabic, and Urdu.
Similarly, the University of Toronto’s medical students are working with clinicians for making infographics for COVID-19 patients. They will then translate these infographics into various languages to help all patients access them.
What students are doing re: #COVID19— Irfan Dhalla (@IrfanDhalla) April 16, 2020
-organizing blood drives
-supporting health care workers (e.g., childcare)
-3D printing face shields
-supporting virtual care
Read more from @UofTMedDean https://t.co/V2vIdgwTox
#Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh have told us they want to know more about #COVID_19. But finding this info in camps is a challenge. Internet & media access is limited, so people seek other sources. Here's what we learned: https://t.co/hLKmeciee1 with @Internews & @bbcmediaaction pic.twitter.com/pPCrdLEc8Z— Translators without Borders (@TranslatorsWB) April 24, 2020
The Rohingya are an ethnic group that speak Rohingya, which is a verbal language. Translators without Borders connected with them in Bangladesh to collect data that can help organisations form communication strategies for linguistic and cultural minorities. They learned that their need for COVID-19 information led people to spread and believe various rumours in the camps. Consequently, there was more fear and uncertainly among the community.
Volunteers go the extra mile to help Urdu, Hindi, Pakistani, Burmese Punjabi, Kurdish, Arabic and Bengali speakers
In August 2021 a video went viral where people saw a 23-year-old volunteer Ain Syawani talk to a foreigner in Urdu while helping him with his vaccination procedure at Bukit Jalil vaccine dispensing centre (PPV). The University Selangor (Unisel) student said that the language barrier made it difficult for her to assist almost 200 foreign workers every day. So, she picked up a few sentences and now converses in Urdu, Hindi, Pakistani and Burmese.
Similarly, multilingual volunteers added a personal touch to vaccination procedure by calling people in and arranging for translations in Urdu, Punjabi, Kurdish, Arabic and Bengali. As a result, around 110 people had their vaccinations at a clinic based at Chancellors Hotel in Fallowfield.
“From talking to the General Practitioners (GPs) we knew that many of the people who had not taken up the vaccine offer just needed more time to have a conversation – in the language of their choice – so that they could make a decision that they were comfortable with,” said Fiona Vincer, Health Development Co-ordinator who started this initiative with others.
Do you know of any translators, interpreters, linguists, students, or organisations that are helping communities and healthcare officials communicate efficiently? Please do let us know in the comments. And if you wish to contribute to or volunteer to translate COVID-19 related documents, please write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.