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Coronavirus In Ohio: Immigrant Communities Lead Efforts To Translate Health Info

Ohio Department of Health director Amy Acton gives daily briefings on the coronavirus with Gov. Mike DeWine.
Office of Gov. Mike DeWine
Ohio Department of Health director Amy Acton gives daily briefings on the coronavirus with Gov. Mike DeWine.

Last Sunday afternoon, the Bhutanese Community of Central Ohio hosted a two-hour Facebook talk show with two doctors from the community: COVID-19 101. 

Doctors Sanju Mahato and Damodar Poudel explained how the novel coronavirus spreads and how to flatten the curve. In 12 hours, the video got more than 24,000 views and was shared more than 100 times.

The show addresses a language gap that Bhuwan Pyakurel says is contributing to rampant misinformation in some immigrant communities.

“Many non-English speaking people are getting information from social media. That’s Facebook,” Pyakurel explains. “Which sometimes is very helpful, other times is very misleading.”

Government and medical guidance on stopping the spread of the coronavirus, and how people can protect themselves and others, has been shifting daily. It can be hard to keep up, and even harder for non-English speakers.

Pyakurel says people are also turning to media from their countries of origin, and what they’re putting out might not apply to people here in Ohio.

He says he appreciates the daily press conferences from Gov. Mike DeWine, when administration officials provide the latest information on the state's coronavirus response, but they're still not as accessible as it needs to be.

“The good thing is at least they are providing interpreters for sign language people who are hard of hearing. That is great,” Pyakurel says. “But there should be equal importance needs to be given, or at least try to give interpretation services to people who speak languages other than English.”

Pyakurel ends up doing a lot of personal translating for fellow Bhutanese immigrants who don’t know what's happening.

“We just have to watch them and have no clue what is going on,” Pyakurel says. “And watching doesn’t help, because we just see the governor talking and people from Health Department talking, but understand nothing.”

Ohio Department of Health director Amy Acton acknowledges the need to bridge that gap. Her joint appearances with DeWine now attract tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of live listeners every day.

“We were just talking to a small group of media when this began, and now we realize there’s a following of people who are relying on this news every day we do it,” Acton says.

Acton says health officials are making progress with communication in Spanish at the state level. (WOSU and other organizations are now providing a live stream of the governor’s news conference in Spanish.) On Monday, Gov. Mike DeWine said Monday that Ohio is working to offer its coronavirus information and briefings in Chinese, Somali and Arabic.

But the state still needs help from local leaders to transmit messages to their faith and ethnic communities.

“We are actively translating. I just saw a sign in Spanish, so I did not know that,” Acton says. “But we do, we have to get these messages out. And again, we’re all watching this right now.”

At The City Level

Cities have taken some initiative on that front. Columbus is already working to translate materials about the coronavirus: how it spreads, how to protect yourself from contracting it, and how to get tested.

Abdi Soofe, the New American Initiative coordinator for the Columbus Department of Neighborhoods, helps translate materials into Somali.

“It is important that we inform our diverse communities in Central Ohio. Because this whole challenge is something new that we’re not familiar with. We have to learn from the authorities,” Soofe says. “It is absolutely important that our residents take necessary precautions to slow down and ultimately stop this spread.”

In addition to Somali, Columbus is translating documents into four other top languages spoken in Ohio: Arabic, French, Nepali and Spanish. The city plans to release new materials every day this week, and community leaders will spread the word.

That includes one that’s just been translated, which is an informational fact sheet,” Soofe says. “It describes everything that you have to know, that you need to know about the coronavirus.”

Pyakurel has reached out to several agencies to offer translation services in Nepali. He hopes Ohio will catch up to states he considers leaders in the cross-language communication effort.

“In general, I have seen the state of Colorado and the state of Washington, they have made a really good approach to address the non-English speaking population,” Pyakurel says.

Last Tuesday, Pyakurel started translating DeWine’s daily briefings into Nepali on a local radio station. He’ll continue doing so every evening for the foreseeable future.

Adora Namigadde was a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. She joined WOSU News in February 2017. A Michigan native, she graduated from Wayne State University with a B.A. in Broadcast Journalism and a minor in French.