Providing translations of COVID-19 information is a significant step in ensuring that everyone knows how to protect themselves and their loved ones from contracting the novel coronavirus. It seems fair to say that every individual, organization and industry has been affected by COVID-19 in one way or another. Given its impact, it is imperative that important information be equally accessible to everyone in its target audience. This includes various responses to the need for information, both written and spoken, to be translated or interpreted into languages other than English.
Just as there have been various actions taken by state and local governments in an effort to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, there have also been varied efforts made to provide translations of COVID-19 information. The Harvard Crimson reported in March that a collective of medical students and faculty from several medical schools had come together to form the COVID-19 Health Literacy Project. Their goal was to translate general medical information about the virus, as well as information about its prevention and management, to as wide an audience as possible as soon as possible. This included translation into 34 languages of 7 fact sheets, 3 of which were geared towards children and adolescents and 1 of which focused on COVID-19 and pregnancy.
In Ohio, some of Governor Mike DeWine’s communications were published in Spanish, but counties and nonprofit organizations got involved to help fill the gaps for translations of COVID-19 information. The Toledo-Lucas County Health Department published videos and news releases in Arabic, Spanish and Chinese, as well as hosting weekly Facebook Live Q & A sessions in Arabic and Spanish. These sessions had significant viewership, but given that they are only once a week their reach is still limited. Linda Parra, a radio host and founder of nonprofit Nuestra Gente Communities, Inc. has been doing dedicated broadcasts and sharing translations of COVID-19 information on her social media in an attempt to reach anyone who may not be able to attend the county’s Facebook Live sessions. As of this writing, the Dayton and Montgomery County Public Health Department’s Coronavirus Disease 2019 webpage contains a dedicated section for the CDC’s translations of COVID-19 information in Korean, Arabic, Chinese, Somali and Spanish, with the promise that “additional pages will be translated in the coming weeks.”
The response to the need for translations of COVID-19 information in Pennsylvania seems to have lagged, but has perhaps ultimately come to a more widespread resolution. At the end of March, Spanish subtitles were added to the web stream of the state administration’s daily COVID-19 briefing, and the Pennsylvania Department of Health (PADOH) has also published materials in Spanish. These measures are excellent tools to help Spanish-speaking communities access potentially life-saving information, and as of this writing, the PADOH’s website includes a toggle to translate into over 100 different languages. Pages like Coronavirus FAQs are in those languages, but unfortunately not all the embedded PDFs appear in the target language when they are opened.
Chicago’s efforts to provide translations of COVID-19 information are set to ramp up in light of recent statistics. Within four weeks, the number of Latinos who accounted for the city’s total COVID-19 cases and deaths increased by 23% and 6%, respectively. In a press conference on May 6, 2020, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot described several multilingual resources that the city would begin circulating, including bilingual English/Spanish postcards and door hangers. The city will also host bilingual virtual town hall meetings to discuss their response efforts and answer questions. According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, Latinos have the highest COVID-19 infection rate of any racial or ethnic group in the state. Providing information in both English and Spanish, then, not only means reaching a wider audience, but also increasing reach to some of the city’s most vulnerable residents.
Months into the pandemic, translations of COVID-19 news stories in New Jersey are being taken up by a partnership between online news site NJ Spotlight and Montclair State University’s Center for Cooperative Media. This partnership is unique in that not only does it undertake the translation of originally English-language news stories into Spanish, Korean and Chinese, but also translates stories from Spanish-, Korean- and Chinese-language news outlets into English. According to Oni Advincula, the ethnic media program coordinator for the Center for Cooperative Media, this exchange serves as a “trusted connection point between immigrant and ethnic news outlets in the state and mainstream journalists, city and state government and advocacy groups.” He also writes that it amplifies the voice of marginalized groups whose stories might otherwise go unheard by the majority of New Jerseyans.
Translations of COVID-19 Information: International Case Studies
CBC reports that in the Waterloo region of Ontario, Canada, the Kitchener-Waterloo Multicultural Centre has been attempting to provide translated public health information to as many local residents with limited English proficiency as possible. The center’s director describes the particular challenge of reaching immigrants who have recently arrived in the region, as they are less likely to be aware that the Multicultural Center exists, let alone the resources that it provides. The more channels over which translations of COVID-19 information can be provided, the more likely they are to reach the audience who needs them.
Translation of public health information in the UK has been plagued by inconsistencies. In a letter to the British government, Doctors of the World UK claims that there has been a serious lack of communication about COVID-19, including government mandates about masks and gatherings and public health advice, in languages other than English. The government responded with a statement that they had translated public health information into 25 languages. Besides the argument by some that this is simply not sufficient given the number of languages other than English spoken by residents of the UK, another major complaint is that translations are not provided in a timely manner, especially given the rate at which discoveries are made and directives are changing. Doctors of the World UK has stepped in to fill this gap, publishing informational materials in over 60 languages. Chair of the UK charity African French Speaking Community Support (AFSCS) Jacques Matensi-Kubanza has also spoken out about the importance of providing translations of COVID-19 information in light of his first-hand experience. He told the London Economic that he knows people who have died from COVID-19 complications because they were not well enough informed to seek medical care in time.
Addressing Healthcare Disparities
Months after Mayor Lightfoot’s press conference in May, the Houston Chronicle has reported that the Hispanic population in Houston is still suffering higher COVID-19 infection rates, due in part to a lack of Spanish-language resources and healthcare services. The Chronicle explains that Hispanic individuals are already at a higher risk of contracting the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 because they are more likely to work in frontline industries with consistent exposure to the public, are less likely to be insured, and have higher rates of comorbidities such as diabetes. Combine this higher risk with a lack of clear information about protection and prevention, and it’s not surprising that the outcome is higher infection rates. July Garza, who ultimately tested positive for COVID-19 and was interviewed by the Houston Chronicle, speaks English and Spanish but argues that the use of medical jargon at the clinic where she went to get tested made it more challenging to navigate the process.
As July Garza’s experience shows, misunderstandings and mistakes can still arise when both parties speak the same language but have different levels of specialized knowledge. When your audience is the general public and not healthcare professionals, it is not just literacy – whether or not someone can read – that matters, but health literacy. Health literacy involves being able to read, understand and be empowered to utilize healthcare information to protect and potentially improve health. Several factors can affect an individual’s health literacy in the US including age, limited internet access, and limited English proficiency. According to one study cited by the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, 74% of Spanish-speaking patients have less-than-adequate health literacy, compared to 7% of English-speaking patients. But there are ways to avoid gaps in care that low health literacy can cause.
One of these is using plain language writing. Georgia State University has created a coronavirus adult literacy resource library comprised of materials up to a 9th grade reading level. It is also organized into easier and more difficult to read items so that those utilizing them can select a more or less challenging resource based on their target audience. If you are looking to rewrite your materials to ensure that your clients, members or employees can read, understand and are empowered to use them to protect themselves against the novel coronavirus, we have over a decade of experience in health literacy and plain language writing. Healthcare translations of health literacy material is one of our main areas of expertise. Whether you are in the healthcare industry or are responsible for providing translations of COVID-19 information to clients or employees, we can help you get the job done. If you’d like to read more about plain language in the context of COVID-19, you can also read our blog post “Writing Clearly about COVID-19.”
Interpreters and COVID-19
Interpreters are also working to fill gaps that either existed pre-pandemic or have grown exponentially wider since. Many interpreters who previously only worked in person are mobilizing to be able to interpret for patients via video conference or telephone. Depending on what infrastructure is, or is not, already in place, this can involve a significant effort on the part of interpreters, the agency they may work for, and hospitals. Given the improved quality of care that has been demonstrated when services are linguistically and culturally competent, many have dedicated themselves to making that effort.
More than Medical
The significance of providing medical translations of COVID-19 information is evident and in our work with healthcare translations, we seek to provide patients with the information they need to be in better control of their health. However, we can’t forget about other materials that require translation as a result of the pandemic. Communications regarding changes to employment, school, shopping, travel, recreation, etc., should also be equally accessible to all stakeholders.
You will see and hear the refrain that “we are all in this together” on yard signs, during press conferences and in social media campaigns. Part of that means ensuring that everyone has access to the same information, which translation and interpretation can help achieve. Contact us if you’d like more information about how we can help you with this.