Community Groups Serve as Pandemic Information Lifeline to Non-English Speakers

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Over the past couple of weeks, a tiny operation called the Bay Area Korean InfoLine has been deluged with calls from Korean language speakers across the state desperate for help related to the coronavirus and its impacts.

Hour after hour, the questions roll in:

“How do I apply for unemployment benefits?”

“How can I get a disaster loan for my small business?”

“What do I say to my English-speaking landlord if I can’t pay rent?”

“Will going to the hospital or applying for unemployment affect my chances of becoming a citizen?”

“Is the rumor I saw on the Internet true?”

With just two operators working the phone line—a service of the nonprofit Korean Community Center of the East Bay—it’s been hard to respond to all the questions. Yet, because of a lack of Korean language translations available from official state and local government sources, it has fallen to this small community group to help thousands of Korean speakers with limited English proficiency get the information they urgently need.

“It is very overwhelming,” said Yeri Shon, who oversees the phone line. “Calls now are 20 minutes plus, just because (callers) have so many questions, which is very understandable, but at the same time a lot of resources are not available in Korean.”

The Korean community organization is far from alone. Across the state, groups that serve immigrant and ethnically diverse populations are scrambling to meet a sudden surge in demand for coronavirus-related information and assistance in languages other than English. While state and local authorities do provide translations of some information, particularly in more widely-spoken languages such as Spanish, there remain huge gaps in what is available, particularly given the speed at which news and policies around the coronavirus are developing, community organizations said.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 44 percent of California residents speak a language other than English at home, and almost one in five speak English “less than very well.” About 29 percent speak Spanish, leaving another 15 percent who speak other languages.

In a needs assessment of its members conducted last week, the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network (CPEHN), a group of nonprofits serving communities of color, heard numerous stories similar to that of the Korean Community Center, policy manager Carolina Valle said.

“Many of them are the only organizations in their area with the language capacity and credibility to reach their communities,” said Valle. “They’re really being called on to get the message out. Many of them had to make difficult decisions to halt or reduce work so they could be the messengers and interpreters for community members.”

Valle said she remains concerned that some ethnically diverse Californians still do not have adequate translation services. Some non-English speakers may have little to no information about how to protect themselves from the virus, or get help if they need it, she said.

A lack of translated versions of application forms for unemployment benefits and other economic relief are among the challenges. At the Korean Community Center, advocates typically help Korean speakers with these types of applications in person. Now, with offices closed to adhere to social distancing rules, workers are trying to assist with applications by phone, which is much more difficult, said Shon. Meanwhile, demand for help is surging.

Even when official sources do translate information, the jargon used to describe COVID-19 topics and policies can be difficult to convey in a way that non-English speakers can understand.

Genevieve Flores-Haro, associate director of the Mixteco Indigena Community Organizing Project (MICOP) works with indigenous immigrants in Ventura County. She said the county has sent out alerts and information in Spanish, but some community members struggled to grasp the meaning of translated terms for “social distancing” and “quarantine,” so the information was unintelligible to them.

Additionally, many immigrants in the county speak indigenous languages, not Spanish. And they don’t access the media channels and official information sources that other Californians use to stay informed about the pandemic.

“They’re playing catch-up,” she said. “There’s an information gap that’s missing in our communities.” 

To help, MICOP has been creating its own public service announcements in the indigenous languages of Mixteco, Zapoteco and Purépecha that it broadcasts on its radio station and online. Topics include coronavirus basics, where to get food for their children, how to report price gouging, and what quarantine means, she said.

Meanwhile, in-person interpreters fear social distancing could lead to declining language access in the health care system. Mireya Muñoz, program director of PALS for Health, which sends interpreters to hospitals and clinics throughout Southern California, has been forced to scale back services as medical establishments close their doors to non-patients to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

PALS for Health is trying to adapt by offering interpretation over the phone, or via online platforms such as Zoom. But Muñoz said the loss of face-to-face interactions could mean that interpreters don’t pick up important gestures and cultural nuances that are critical to understanding what patients are trying to say. She also worries it could lead to delays in care if patients have to wait to be connected by phone or computer to an interpreter, instead of having access to someone on site.  

Other community organizations are also working to adjust to the shifting landscape. Some are sharing translated materials with groups from other parts of the state. The Korean Community Center is creating a team of bilingual Korean volunteers to research information and translate it into English, said Shon and Pysay Phinith, program director for the center’s wellness and social services program.

Valle at CPEHN said government support must increase to help with the “huge volume in need that these organizations are working to meet,” she said.

To Shon and Phinith, providing information to Korean speakers is key to addressing inequities in language access that have the potential to derail people’s ability to survive the pandemic, physically, emotionally and economically.

“These are situations where the very core of your sustainability, your ability to provide support for your family, all of that is really shaken,” said Shon. “Everybody has a right to these resources, everybody has a right to receive this help—except they can’t because of that language issue.”

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