Here's Why California's Immigrant Communities Need Coronavirus Information in Their Own Languages

Farmworker Monica Barragan stands in front of a field at a job site in Southern California. Immigrant communities need information about the coronavirus, and how to access resources during the pandemic, in a language they understand.  (Courtesy of Lideres Campesinas)

When the Thomas Fire hit Ventura County in 2017, it was clear to Genevieve Flores-Haro that Spanish-speaking residents weren’t getting the emergency information they needed.

At the time, the county didn’t have a public information officer who spoke Spanish, she said. She remembered seeing an advisory to boil water with a line in Spanish that said, "If you don’t speak English, have someone explain this to you."

“I remember during the fires, just being so upset about that. It was hard to think that that hadn’t been on anybody’s radar before,” Flores-Haro said.

Flores-Haro is the associate director of the Mixteco/Indígena Community Organizing Project (MICOP), home of Radio Indígena — a community radio station in Oxnard. In a state where more than 40% of people speak a language other than English at home, MICOP is one of numerous community groups filling in the gaps as public health officials work to inform people about COVID-19 in a language they understand.

Among those who are often overlooked are the thousands of indigenous Mexican immigrants living and working in rural California — roughly 165,000 people in 2010, according to a California Rural Legal Assistance study.

Since the most recent wildfires, Flores-Haro said, Ventura County has made significant progress in how it communicates emergency information, not just in Spanish, but also in the indigenous languages spoken by thousands of local farmworkers.

So when COVID-19 hit, MICOP and county officials were able to act quickly.

Since March, Radio Indígena has aired daily public safety announcements with information about the coronavirus in three Mexican indigenous languages: Zapoteca, Purépecha and Mixtec. Ventura County has also released videos through its Farmworker Resource Program.

The first PSAs were, “Just the basics, what are the symptoms, that sort of thing. And then from there it grew,” Flores-Haro said.

A message in Mixtec posted by Radio Indígena announces school closures in Santa Barbara County. (Screenshot of video from Radio Indígena )

Google Translate ‘Pretty Much Unintelligible’

In the Central Valley, the Fresno County Department of Public Health is working to communicate information about the coronavirus in Spanish and Hmong through local radio and TV, said Leticia Berber, a Fresno County health educator. But those aren’t the only languages Fresno County residents speak.

“Right now, our challenge is providing those languages,” Berber said.

Fresno County is home to large immigrant communities from Latin America, Southeast Asia and Europe, among other places.

“We have a request of having the website in Portuguese, we have a request to reach our migrant populations, our field workers. It’s a challenge because we don’t have Portuguese-speaking staff here,” Berber said.

Similar to MICOP’s work in Ventura County, community organizations in the Central Valley are also jumping in to supplement governmental efforts to reach immigrant communities during the pandemic.

“Access to everything is kind of gated by knowledge of English and access to the internet. So if you don’t have access to those, then how do you know? And how do you keep your family safe?” said Christine Barker, executive director of Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries, or FIRM, a faith-based nonprofit that serves the area’s refugee communities.

Barker said her group began working with the county after a FIRM staff member noticed that COVID-19 information in Hmong on the county health department’s website was poorly translated.

The health department is now using infographics in Hmong, which FIRM staff have assisted in translating, Berber said. But much of the multilingual information about COVID-19 on the website is still English run through Google Translate.

“Google Translate is not even good with European Romantic languages like Spanish. For a language like Punjabi, which doesn’t even use a Latin-based script, it is just a total disaster,” said Naindeep Singh, executive director of the Jakara Movement, a Sikh community organizing nonprofit that works throughout the state.

Singh said the Kern County Public Health Department recently reached out to his organization for help translating coronavirus information into Punjabi. The group had already begun building a relationship with county officials in response to a recent earthquake.

“That’s when groups were like, ‘Look at our emergency system here in Kern. We don’t even have it in different languages!’ And so obviously when this COVID-19 hit, they were already preparing and looking at it,” Singh said.

Barker and Singh both say the state’s efforts to get COVID-19 information out to non-English speakers also leaves room for improvement.

In the absence of a statewide system for disseminating information about COVID-19 in different languages, the quality and availability of materials varies widely from county to county. And that can have major impacts on populations that are already disenfranchised, said Cary Sanders, senior policy director of the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network.

“In California, if you’re uninsured — and that can also include undocumented — you can still access free testing and treatment for COVID,” Sanders said. “You don’t need to get a referral from a primary care doctor. You can go straight to urgent care or the ER to get this testing. And yet one of the things that our partners have raised is: In certain counties, that’s not clear in some of the materials. So people are not getting tested or not inquiring about getting tested because they think they need to get a doctor’s referral.”

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Translations Not Enough

California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office recently released a guide for immigrants in English and Spanish. A spokesperson for the governor’s office said staff are working on translating the materials into Tagalog, Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese and Arabic, and working with community partners, elected officials, news organizations and social media to get the word out to immigrant communities. The spokesperson said those languages were chosen based on census data and California Department of Education enrollment data.

But advocates say immigrant communities don’t just need translated guidance about the virus. They need to get the answers to their own questions about how to cope and how to access resources during the pandemic.

“Many of these people that are giving out information in Spanish, may not be listening to what the community is going through,” said Mily Treviño-Sauceda, executive director of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas.

“Even public officials have gotten into radio spots to give an announcement saying, ‘We’re here for you, we’re giving out information, go to this place.’ ... But they’re not getting information from the people themselves saying, ‘These are the problems we’re having to get to where the clinics are, to get to where the services are.’ ” said Treviño-Sauceda. “Most of the workers are working more hours and by the time they get off, places are closed. Or the merchandise or whatever is given out. And by the time that farmworkers try to arrive, there’s nothing for them.”

Flores-Haro is working to get answers to the questions raised by her Radio Indígena listeners.

“One thing that I still don’t have an answer for: What are the recommendations for someone to social distance when maybe it’s a whole family in a room, right? And there’s multiple families in a house,” Flores-Haro said.

A video posted on Ventura County's Farmworker Resource Program website explains in Purépecha how to protect yourself from the novel coronavirus. (Courtesy of Ventura County)

She said her biggest challenge is deciding what information is the most important for people to know at a time when the deluge of information about the novel coronavirus is constantly changing.

Because COVID-19 is so contagious, said Singh, it’s in the interest of everyone that all communities have access to information they understand to prevent the spread of the disease. Breakdowns in communication can have dire consequences, he said.

According to Singh, the mother of a family that recently arrived in the Central Valley after flying from Punjab, India, went to a local hospital for a coronavirus test, but she didn’t have someone with her who could translate between English and Punjabi. When hospital staff sent her home after the test, she thought it meant that she was negative. But four days later, she learned otherwise.

“She got the call to tell her she was COVID-positive,” Singh said. “She ended up exposing her family. And her son ended up getting tested positive for COVID as well. So really making sure that all communities are getting the right information, it’s really imperative for the safety of the individual, the families and our entire community.”

Wildfires Exposed Flaws in Emergency Notification System

The ability of California’s state agencies to notify immigrant communities about emergency situations was put to the test during recent wildfire seasons.

A December 2019 audit examined government responses to the 2018 Camp Fire, the 2017 Sonoma Complex Fires and the 2017 Thomas Fire. It found that none of the counties impacted had issued evacuation warnings in languages other than English.

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Last year, $50 million was approved to fund an initiative for disaster preparedness among the state’s most vulnerable communities. In the face of the global pandemic, the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services has now pivoted the campaign, known as “Listos California,” to also include COVID-19 preparedness.

“Listos California was set up to really educate our most vulnerable about natural disasters,” said Karen Baker, Listos California co-chair.

“When COVID-19 came along, the governor basically said, 'Hey, can you take this on as well?' ”

Listos California staff members are now phone banking and conducting webinars to reach and engage Spanish-speaking families and immigrant populations with COVID-19 information and natural disaster preparedness.

Staff are also encouraging vulnerable populations to stay home and for people to use their time sheltering in place to prepare for other disasters like wildfires, earthquakes and floods.

“If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we need to get ready for other emergencies that could also impact our vulnerable communities,” said Baker’s co-chair, Justin Knighten.

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