VANCOUVER — When Mary Rose Manzano-Leal called Filipino employees of a coronavirus-stricken meat-packing plant in Alberta last month, the physician says they expressed relief as soon she began speaking their language.
“When I tell them that I can speak Tagalog … they suddenly perk up and become interested in speaking with me.”
Across Canada, community organizations, advocates, researchers and health workers are filling gaps in information about COVID-19 in languages other than English.
Manzano-Leal is volunteering as member of the Alberta International Medical Graduates Association while she’s on maternity leave from her job as the director of care at a supported living facility in Calgary.
Alberta Health Services asked the organization, whose members speak about different 80 languages, to help support workers at the Cargill meat-packing plant, the centre of Canada’s largest outbreak of COVID-19.
Manzano-Leal said she talked to about 50 workers who understood English fairly well, but some had more difficulty expressing their concerns in English, especially when it came to health and well-being.
Once she began speaking in Tagalog, Manzano-Leal said the workers opened up.
“They were scared of transmitting the disease to their families because they’re at home, and so we eased their worries and told them the proper way of isolating themselves.”
Workers also told Manzano-Leal they were afraid of the stigma associated with testing positive for COVID-19, even after they had recovered.
“They can feel it. When they go outside and they know their friends are going to the same grocery stores, they can feel how (others) distance themselves,” she said.
The international medical graduate association has compiled information about COVID-19 in more than 20 languages and dialects. They’re also offering webinars focused on symptoms of the illness, what to do if someone becomes sick, and mental health.
The next sessions look at how to stay safe as businesses reopen, while a partner organization, ActionDignity, has offered sessions on various financial supports.
In Vancouver, a coalition of community groups sprang up under the name C19 Response Coalition with the goal of translating public health resources and helping immigrant seniors, among others, find credible information online.
“Language communities have really been left behind,” said project manager Kevin Huang.
In the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak in B.C., he said many news releases were only available in English, while translated materials are often buried on government and health authority websites.
There is a digital literacy gap as well, especially among seniors, he added.
“We’ve been finding government has been, over time, increasing their translation and multilingual resources, but people don’t know how to get there or don’t know how to find it,” said Huang.
“It’s left up to community folks and ethno-cultural groups and language group media to do that work, but that doesn’t encompass everybody, and if the government can play a stronger role in translating that also ensures a level of credibility of information.”
The coalition’s website is available in traditional and simplified Chinese, Tagalog and Tieng Viet, or Vietnamese, and they’re going door-to-door dropping off flyers, said Huang, who also serves as the executive director of the non-profit Hua Foundation.
The group has started a catalogue of misleading or false information about COVID-19, and the C19 website features a guide to distinguishing between “what’s real and what’s fake.”
The coalition has received enough funding from the federal government to continue its work until the end of July, said Huang.
Another group of doctors and researchers in Toronto is responding to the psychological effects of the pandemic on Chinese-Canadians and other racial groups, while promoting community health.
Dr. Alan Li is a primary care physician and the co-principal investigator for a project dubbed Protech, which received funding from the Canadian Institute of Health Research.
They’ve put together an information hub for Chinese-Canadians, a live chat hotline and a referral service, as well as tips on how to evaluate different sources of information.
There is plenty of information about COVID-19 available to Chinese-language speakers, he said, but few of them specifically address the epidemic in Canada.
For example, Li said, Asian Canadians were early users of face masks to help prevent transmission of the novel coronavirus, and the initial advice from Canadian public health officials that masks are ineffective reinforced stigmas.
Protech is relying on community networks and partners to reach people, and Li said public health departments across Canada should do the same to make sure people aren’t falling through the cracks.
“There are some groups that are very hard to reach through social media, for example, like the workers in grocery stores or in massage parlours or people who are precariously employed. They’re not going to be following our tweets and signing up for Zoom meetings.”
The federal government webpage on COVID-19 has some multilingual resources and a toll-free phone line is available with interpretation services.
In an email, a spokesperson for the Public Health Agency of Canada said the government is contacting community organizations from various cultural communities and collaborating with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.
The agency said the government’s COVID-19 public education campaign has included print advertising in Indigenous and ethnic newspapers, and digital ads on a variety of platforms.
Print ads in 13 languages were published in April based on the “top ethnic languages spoken in Canada,” the agency said. Radio segments were broadcast in Farsi, Italian and Mandarin to reach communities linked to countries where travel and health advisories were in place at the time.
The agency said Statistics Canada has also identified up to 1,700 field survey interviewers proficient in more than 35 languages who could do an estimated 600,000 contact tracing calls per month.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 1, 2020.
Brenna Owen, The Canadian Press