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We need to do more to communicate information about COVID-19 | The Dot
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About the Author

Whitney Swander is the Director of Data and Evaluation for Better Together and an advocate for students and families in Central Oregon.

She penned this guest post for the Bend Bulletin in April 2020. You can read the column on the Bulletin’s site. We have cross-posted here, with Whitney’s permission. 


I take for granted that information which interests or impacts me is easily and immediately available. When news and recommendations were issued about COVID-19, social distancing and stay -at -home orders — I never doubted I would be able to closely follow the information day to day in a language I speak and understand well. If you are reading this publication you likely can too. This, however, isn’t a given for nearly 8% (over 5,000 households) in Deschutes County who speak a language other than English.

I see that we’ve done a disservice by not prioritizing equitable and timely access to information that protects our communities’ health and dignity. We are told that every day of social distancing by every member of our community counts toward flattening the COVID-19 curve, but we’ve not bothered to ensure that message is universally heard or understood. Spanish-speaking communities in Central Oregon have been asked to turn on the “closed captioning” by local news stations and the regional hospital’s YouTube channel, or to use the “Google Translate” feature on websites in order to understand the information coming from our local health systems, governments, community services and businesses. Despite improvements, these automated tools produce unreliable and inaccurate translations, especially when information is detailed and critical to public health.

The lack (or lag) of information available in Spanish makes these communities more vulnerable. It’s time to hold our systems accountable to address and fix this inequity. Oregon Health Authority data released last week shows that at least 22% of Oregonians who tested positive for COVID- 19 are Latino or Hispanic, but it’s likely more. This disparity is both exacerbated by and connected to other evidence that points to systemic and structural inequities (i.e. access to health care and insurance, housing, financial security, education, etc.) that put our Latinx neighbors at greater risk of coronavirus infection and severity, like asthma, diabetes and heart disease.

This is not a new issue. Access to translated materials is one of the many inequities and failures amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic. We need regular, quality and timely translation of information that impacts our public, pandemic or not. High-quality translations must be produced by trained professionals. The cost to create bilingual messaging must be included as a budget line item and a component of official communication plans. Too often, bilingual staff are asked to translate official communications and documents, as an afterthought, with little regard for the skill required. Even worse, our systems rely on community volunteers to do this critical work for free.

As a result, translations are often released days (or weeks or months!) after the materials are originally available in English and are generally, I’m sorry to say, are of poor quality. This is unacceptable.

Getting information out to communities is not “extra,” it is basic. When our governments and local industries say that getting information out in Spanish isn’t a priority right now, they are taking a clear position on which community members and customers matter.

Access to information in Spanish doesn’t just impact Spanish-speaking communities, it impacts all of us. When all members of our community can access information and resources in the language they speak, we are all better positioned to protect ourselves, our families and our communities.

It has been uplifting to witness the outreach as neighbors help neighbors, during this pandemic.

But these feel -good moments blur the realities that do not affect us. If you only speak English, you likely haven’t considered those neighbors left out of our COVID-19 response.

When we fail to meet the basic needs of neighbors, we deny the dignity of their existence. More than ever, it is clear that our governments, health systems, community services and businesses must prioritize and deliver timely bilingual communications and resources, now and every day, pandemic or not.

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