If you turn on the TV or radio, you’re likely to hear and see one official after another giving updates on the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether it’s President Donald Trump, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh or others, you’re sure to hear leaders share crucial information — typically all in English, and without interpreters.
What’s being done to reach people whose primary language isn’t English? In a time when an onslaught of vital news changes at a rapid pace, the need to share accurate and clear information with communities who speak languages other than English may be more important than ever.
According to the City of Boston, about 17 percent of its residents 5 and older speak English “less than very well.”
This weekend, the city plans to deliver a document with important coronavirus information in six languages to every door for every resident, said Jerome Smith, chief of civic engagement and director of the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services. It will be in Spanish, Haitian Creole, Chinese, Vietnamese, Cabo Verdean Creole and Russian as well as English. Information in other languages, such as Portuguese and Arabic, will be available on the city’s website.
“What we’re going to be doing is we’re translating all our documentation regarding what is the COVID virus, how to protect themselves, how to take precautions … the food sites that we’re setting up for the school kids so they can get their two meals a day,” Smith said. “We’re gonna put out information regarding the new fund that was created.”
While the city is just trying to get the basic information out right now, Smith said the document they’ll be passing out will direct residents to the city's website for updates. They’ll also have volunteers who will pass out that information in communities where internet access may not be as readily available.
“So this is not going to be just a one weekend thing and then walk away. As this evolves and as more information comes out, we’re going to see more opportunities for volunteers to go out and again to just drop literature the old-fashioned way,” he said. “‘Cause that, we feel, is the best way to get as much information out to the public as we can.”
Other local leaders have also stepped up. State Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz’s Twitter feed has been filled with information about local resources in both English and Spanish.
The Latina senator from Jamaica Plain said even when there’s not an emergency, she’s always thinking about how crucial information gets out to those who may not speak English well.
“It continues on as a core question for me in the case of a public health crisis but, you know, not just from a sort of equity and justice, but now from a public health standpoint,” she said. “I mean, we as a state are only as healthy and as prepared for this epidemic as are our most vulnerable members of the community. … It’s incumbent upon all of us to make sure we are reaching all places and all peoples.”
Local advocacy groups are also trying to do their part.
Karen Chen, executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association, or CPA, said her community faces cultural and language barriers with the systems in place.
“I think that, you know, on an everyday basis we have been working with community members to even improve things like language access,” she said. “And at the time when there’s no crisis, it’s hard. So you can imagine what it’s like right now.”
Chen said people have contacted the CPA because they need help applying for unemployment benefits.
Suzanne Lee, the president emeritus of CPA, pointed out the lack of access to direct resources locally can lead to inaccurate information getting spread.
“For immigrants, they rely on either friends or organizations or institutions that can do some translation for them … but then you open the door for all these rumors flying around and you don’t know what is real and what is not,” she said.
Chen said City Councilor Ed Flynn, whose district includes Chinatown, has been making sure people have been getting accurate information. Lee also pointed out that State Rep. Aaron Michaelwitz has taken up similar efforts. She said both have used WeChat, a Chinese messaging app, to reach the community.
But Chen and others in the community are still working to make sure their voices are heard.
“So we anticipate to continue to be in contact with the community and then also on the other hand, you know, working with coalitions to advocate to make sure that the vulnerable members of our community gets access to information and resources,” she said.
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“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Massachusetts to take a quantum leap or two on some of the things that voters have been telling Beacon Hill for a long time that they want to see us do,” Chang-Díaz said.