Lost in translation: COVID-19 leaves migrants behind
Many migrants struggle to understand public health information about COVID-19. Ingrid Piller, Distinguished Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, considers what a linguistic crisis response should look like.
Before February 11, when the World Health Organisation christened the novel coronavirus, COVID-19 was not even long-listed for most popular name.
Left out: Multilingual crisis communication has emerged as a global challenge during the pandemic, with migrant communities among those struggling to process public health information.
Just as parents might choose a new baby moniker that keeps all stakeholders happy, WHO advisers were diplomatic: Co and Vi come from coronavirus, D stood for disease and 19 standing for 2019, the year the first cases were seen.
It’s fair to say that COVID-19 was delivered to the linguistic repertoire of the largest number of people after the shortest gestation period.
Naming the disease, however, has been just a minuscule part of the mass communication enveloping the pandemic.
"What people most need is local intel. As well as symptoms to look for, they want answers to questions such as where to get tested, hotspots, new cases in the area ..."
Almost everyone in the world has had to learn about public health concepts such as 'social distancing', 'droplet transmission' or 'flattening the curve' to avoid getting sick.
Almost everyone has had to understand the specifics of containment measures such as lockdowns, contact tracing, or mask wearing in their jurisdiction.
And almost everyone has had to weigh into public debates that pit health against the economy, link the virus to particular social groups, or politicise the disease.
As a topic of conversation, COVID-19 is the water cooler wunderkind.
But not everyone is joining the chat. Multilingual crisis communication has emerged as a global challenge. Australia’s migrants, refugees, the aged, and those with low levels of literacy have struggled to process public health information about the virus.
More than one in five Australian households speak a language other than English. Between 800,000 and one million people in Australia either don’t speak English at all, or don’t speak it well enough to understand complex information.
What people most need is local intel. As well as symptoms to look for, they want answers to questions such as where to get tested, hotspots, new cases in the area, how many people can come to the house, whether restrictions have changed, and so on. The answers differ across jurisdictions.
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