Language barriers hamper coronavirus response

Greg Nash

Non-English-speaking communities are increasingly concerned that coronavirus information is being communicated to them after the rest of the country and in less detail, creating a divide that could put minority groups at greater risk of contracting the virus.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has Spanish and Simplified Chinese translations for its main COVID-19 website, but without all the resources that are available on the English-language site.

And public service announcements produced by the federal government that come out in English sometimes aren’t followed by a Spanish translation until the following day.

“Our federal government has a responsibility to ensure that everyone in our communities — whether they speak English, Spanish, or any other language — has access to the same public health information on the coronavirus crisis,” said Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas), chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC).

“It is unacceptable that the Trump Administration is falling behind in distributing translations of critical life-saving guidance in other languages commonly used in the United States beyond English,” he added in an email to The Hill.

The White House and the CDC on Monday produced a set of coronavirus guidelines asking Americans to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people and to stay in their homes as much as possible for at least 15 days. It wasn’t until Tuesday — after Bold PAC, the fundraising arm of the CHC, took it upon itself to translate the materials — that the White House released a Spanish-language version of those guidelines.

“There is no excuse for his administration failing to provide public health recommendations in Spanish at the same time the information was made available in English on the CDC and White House websites,” said Rep Tony Cardenas (D-Calif.), chairman of Bold PAC.

As of Sunday afternoon, the White House only had guidelines up in Spanish and Simplified Chinese, in addition to English, despite calls for resources in dozens of other languages.

“At the very least you could do the top five languages spoken by those who are of limited English proficiency, which are Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and Tagalog,” said Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC).

Chu teamed up with Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) on March 13 to urge the CDC to make its information available in those five languages.

Chu said she would appeal to her colleagues in the Tri-Caucus — the CHC, CAPAC and the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) — to demand language inclusion be a part of the third coronavirus stimulus bill.

“We need to have a Tri-Caucus push on this,” she told The Hill on Friday.

The language groups affected by a lack of information are diverse and spread across the country.

About 25 million Americans did not speak English proficiently in 2015, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

That figure includes 6 million Asian-Americans and 100,000 Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders, according to Juliet K. Choi, executive vice president and chief of staff of the Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum.

“When we need to communicate with the public, especially in times of crisis, we need to think about this, plan for it, allocate adequate resources upfront,” said Choi.

“Otherwise we’re really creating unnecessary and almost our own created additional layers of barriers to ensure that our communities are safe, healthy and well informed,” she added.

Specific language needs can vary from community to community.

For instance, the CDC’s use of Simplified Chinese would not reach certain Chinese readers. Simplified Chinese is a written language that’s interchangeable within different Chinese languages and dialects — including Mandarin and Cantonese — but that has been taught in mainland China, not in places like Taiwan.

The effects of not reaching specific communities during the coronavirus crisis are already being felt.

“I believe we could do better because I was shocked, I passed by some of ths stores, so many people in close proximity to each other, in direct contradiction to what the CDC and World Health Organization (WHO) have been sharing,” said Marleine Bastien, executive director of Family Action Network Movement.

Bastien said she hasn’t seen public service announcements on coronavirus in Haitian Creole, a language that’s a common sight on public signs and advertising in South Florida.

“In terms of Creole, it is really shocking to me because Haitian-Americans are the third biggest group in Miami-Dade County,” said Bastien.

“It’s about inclusion, it’s about safety, it’s about making sure we all get the same message in a language we’re comfortable with,” she added.

And some observers are especially concerned the federal government isn’t providing translations for two key reasons: It has the resources to do so, and its refusal puts a strain on state and local governments.

“There’s an existing federal framework. FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has an excellent language action plan, literally, that’s what they call it, the FEMA Language Action Plan,” said Choi.

Choi added FEMA’s language plan provides a blueprint for languages that will be needed to confront a crisis and has the capacity to translate government actions and instructions into many foreign languages.

“FEMA highlights 19 [languages], which I think is a really excellent standard,” said Choi.

Chu said the White House’s response demonstrates the administration doesn’t “grasp or care” about the importance of reaching out to all communities during a pandemic.

“I would say it’s not a high priority for them,” said Chu.

A FEMA official told The Hill on Sunday that the agency is in the final steps of adapting its language plan for use in the coronavirus emergency.

The federal government’s limited language response has left states to fill in the gaps.

The California state website on COVID-19 information, for instance, has a translation button, but it provides a Google Translate version of its English-language site.

“The State of California is unable to guarantee the accuracy of any translation provided by Google™ Translate and is therefore not liable for any inaccurate information or changes in the formatting of the pages resulting from the use of the translation application tool,” reads a disclaimer on the site.

In 2017, New York City passed a law requiring city departments to translate their materials to at least 10 languages the city determined were most spoken among non-English speakers in the city.

As the coronavirus outbreak has spread across the U.S., hitting New York particularly hard, the city has put resources into translating materials into 22 languages other than English.

“The mayors and the governors are doing the best they can. And they have to recreate general public health information that should be available and centralized at the national level,” said Choi.

Tags Coronavirus Judy Chu Simplified Chinese Spanish Tony Cardenas

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