Apr 28, 2020

How Linguists & Multilingual Volunteers Are Helping Us Fight COVID-19

The biggest weapon all of us have in the face of 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 nonprofit 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 nonprofit organizations (involved in medicine and linguistics) across the world are taking the initiative to solve these issues and close the communication gap. 

1. 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 realized 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:

  • Help the healthcare officials in conducting the first consultation with a patient without an interpreter
  • Help them contact an interpreter directly and quickly

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. 

2. Researchers find ways to improve governance for linguistically diverse communities

Since the day 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 analyze 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 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.

3. 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 then 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.

4. Community-led groups do their bit to help out the vulnerable sections of society

Nonprofit organizations 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 organization, 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 organizations in reaching out to the Romane-speaking community.

Mass211, a centralized 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.

Based on a survey they conducted in more than 300 communities, the Massachusetts Health Officers Association prioritized language needs. They are training student volunteers to help with translating and interpreting for those who don’t speak English.

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 in 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.

The Rohingya are an ethnic group who speak Rohingya, which is a verbal language. Translators without Borders connected with them in Bangladesh to collect data that can help organizations form communication strategies for linguistic and cultural minorities. They learned that their need for COVID-19 information led people to spread and believe various rumors in the camps. Consequently, there was more fear and uncertainly among the community.


Do you know of any translators, interpreters, linguists, students, or organizations 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 support@translatebyhumans.com.

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Aarohi Pathak

Aarohi Pathak

Aarohi Pathak is the Senior Content Writer at Translate by Humans. A former English literature student, she believes that the world's best stories are yet to be written. Given a choice, Aarohi happily wears the copywriter's hat and combines words that drive action. She has previously written content for finance and insurance, FMCG, and technology industries.

When she's not writing, Aarohi spends time collecting mugs, reading, and checking TV series off her 'to watch' list.

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