Coronavirus

Language barriers compound COVID-19 challenges among non-English speakers

More than 200 languages are spoken in New York City, making pandemic outreach efforts a monumental task.

People lining up to get a COVID test in Harlem.

People lining up to get a COVID test in Harlem. ayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Disinformation, along with ever-changing protocols and a constant stream of new findings about COVID-19, has plagued communities in New York City across social, ethnic and economic spectrums throughout the pandemic. But in areas of the city, in which English is not the primary language for many people, the lack of reliable information has proven to be especially troublesome.

A confluence of factors that existed among many non-English speaking communities long before the introduction of COVID-19 – distrust in institutional medicine, employment and housing constraints and a lack of access to technology – has exacerbated the effects of the language barriers, experts explain. Non-English speakers in New York City are often left in the dark when COVID-19 directives change or important news breaks about the virus on English-language mediums, such as televised press conferences or news stories. Information that does trickle through is sometimes lost in translation and conflicts with reports out of their home countries. Navigating websites where the public can sign up for COVID-19 vaccines, testing or to receive personal protective equipment have also been hindered by language barriers.

“Among non-English speakers in a place like New York City, we are seeing some of the same issues that were always there before the pandemic, but just magnified on a greater scale,” Allison Squires, an associate professor at NYU Rory Meyers College of Nursing, told City & State. “Much like with English speakers, there is also a ton of misinformation … and many folks, especially if they’ve immigrated recently to the country, are comparing the local information with what they’re hearing back home, so that just adds additional layers and complexities.”

Some low-income neighborhoods in New York City that are home to large immigrant communities and where English is not the predominant language, have seen higher rates of COVID-19 spread. Experts say the disparity is due to a variety of factors, including language barriers, though data on the correlation between language and COVID-19 susceptibility, along with vaccination rates, is not widely available.

In East Harlem, also known as “El Barrio,” where more than 50% of the community identifies as Hispanic or Latino, according to 2010 Census data, the neighborhood at one point had the highest rate of COVID-19 spread of all ZIP codes in the city.

In recent months, disparities in vaccination rates between white communities and those composed of other races and ethnicities – where English is often not the primary language – have closed in some cases, thanks in large part to advocacy work and outreach efforts in nonwhite neighborhoods, coupled with the political drivers of vaccine skepticism in white communities.

A recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that the vaccination rate among white and Latino people was virtually even and lower among the white population in 17 states, including New York.

To tackle the dissemination of bad information, along with the general lack of access to reliable public health messages about COVID-19 among non-English speakers, community leaders, including grassroots activists and elected officials, have had to navigate the various mediums that are frequently used by communities with large populations of non-English speakers. This includes media in their home countries, WhatsApp channels and Facebook.

Juan Haro, director of the advocacy group Movement for Justice in El Barrio, recalled a sensationalized storyline that came out of Mexico that was repeatedly cited by East Harlem residents there who said they were skeptical about seeking coronavirus-related medical care because of it. The narrative was about a coronavirus-infected woman whose distraught family blamed hospital staff for refusing to allow them to be with her in the hospital. Haro said El Barrio residents feared this meant they would be unable to leave the hospital if they sought coronavirus-related care.

“It was very alarming for folks here, because, obviously, they're in touch with their families back home, and they would sometimes hear these stories and begin to become concerned that entering a hospital may not be safe for them, that they might not be able to leave or they might die if they go into the hospital to get tested (for COVID-19),” Haro told City & State.

That sort of lethargy around language access is a deep failure. It is what makes access to language services and inclusive services life or death.
– New York City Council Member Shahana Hanif

New York City Council Member Shahana Hanif, who represents District 39 that encompasses Brooklyn’s Kensington neighborhood and is home to one of the city’s largest enclaves of Bangladeshi immigrants, said she, along with Bengali-speaking medical experts, regularly appeared on Bengali TV programs that were broadcast on Facebook and widely watched among members of the city’s Bangladeshi community throughout the pandemic. They used the air time to disseminate general information about the virus, along with coronavirus-relief programs.

“Information consistently reaches folks we want to target … last,” Hanif said. “That sort of lethargy around language access is a deep failure. It is what makes access to language services and inclusive services life or death.”

In addition to the language barrier, job constraints can also fuel the knowledge gap among non-English speakers, explained Council Member Pierina Sanchez, who represents District 14 in the Bronx and is the daughter of Afro Dominican immigrants.

“Our people work really hard, and they’re working grueling hours, multiple jobs often, and the traditional ways of reaching folks – they’re not going to see a Tweet or a very nicely designed graphic unless we are making sure it gets to them,” Sanchez told City & State. “I was with several other elected officials handing out test kits for COVID-19, and I can not tell you the number of conversations I had where people were like, ‘Wait, why do I need that? Is that the vaccine?’ … there isn’t widespread understanding of these things.”

That dynamic has made in-person outreach all the more important, experts say. Movement for Justice in El Barrio recently hung 2,000 posters in Spanish around East Harlem urging people to get vaccinated. The organization also hosted a community meeting about COVID-19 relief services and medical care via conference call since many people in the community do not have access to reliable internet, Haro said.

In addition to language barriers that prevent communities where English is not the primary language from receiving information about COVID-19 protocols, health care and the virus in general, there are additional layers of complexity that immigrant communities face that have made coping with the pandemic even more difficult. For example, non-English speakers often live in multigenerational households, making it harder to quarantine, hastening the spread of the virus.

New York’s public health agencies have been criticized for failing to reach non-English speakers. The state was cited in a civil rights complaint filed by the National Health Law Program in April last year to force access to COVID-19 information in additional languages. The complaint noted that a state-run vaccination site in Manhattan’s Chinatown had no Chinese-language signs or interpreters. Since then, the city and state have made some strides in mitigating the language barriers.

The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has partnered with faith and community-based organizations to conduct COVID-19 outreach in 16 languages, the agency told City & State. All health department materials posted online are available in at least 13 languages, the agency said.

“Prior to COVID, the NYC Health Department’s paid media campaigns relied on more targeted outreach to the audience that needed to be reached and planned for ad placement in the corresponding languages,” agency spokesperson Pedro Frisneda told City & State. “Given the citywide scope of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have developed citywide, multimedium, multilingual campaigns.”

The city’s public hospital system, New York City Health + Hospitals, conducted a phone outreach campaign regarding the vaccine that made 19,000 calls translated into 86 languages between December 2020 and November 2021, the agency said. Health care providers also have access to translation services in over 200 languages at all New York City Health + Hospitals sites.

“It is a priority of our public health system to ensure we’re reaching all patients with language-appropriate and culturally competent strategies that empowers them to make the best health decisions and feel comfortable being cared for by our staff,” the agency said in a statement. “This priority only grew more important with the COVID-19 pandemic, leading us to expand this work, including strengthening partnerships with community-based organizations.”

At the state level, staffers operating COVID-19 hotlines can provide interpretation services in over 100 languages, the state Department of Health told City & State. The state also pointed to a series of downloadable graphics and posters on its website as an example of its language-access efforts, but they are only available in English, Spanish and Chinese.

The federal rollout of free at-home COVID-19 testing kits this week shows there are still serious shortfalls in government approach to language access. The Department of Health and Human Services-run website, where households can order tests, is only available in three languages. Rep. Grace Meng, who represents the 6th Congressional District, which encompasses Queens, tweeted that she is working with the federal government to expand language access on the testing kit website and ensure those who do not have internet access are able to place orders. Meng last year introduced a bill that would require the federal government to translate all COVID-19 information to the top 20 languages spoken in the U.S.

“Ultimately, one’s grasp of the English language should never determine their ability and access to fighting against this pandemic,” she said in a statement.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.