As physical distancing shutters non-essential services like nail salons and restaurants, many members of the Vietnamese diaspora community are bearing the brunt of COVID-19’s economic fallout. The federal government has rolled out support programs, but some people face difficulties accessing them due to language barriers.

Kathy Thai saw this challenge first-hand as she supported her mother through the application for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), which provides $2,000 for four months to those now making less than $1,000 with severely reduced or lost incomes because of the pandemic.

“She kept saying how she would be lost if I wasn’t there to read through this for her,” Thai said.

As a result, she joined Y Vy Truong and Mimi Nguyen in producing translated guides and videos about the CERB and Employment Insurance in English and Vietnamese under Bảo Vệ Collective, a Vancouver-based youth-led grassroots organization. They recalled putting in a two-week marathon to prepare for the April 6 launch of the CERB application.

“We experienced this huge sense of urgency to get the information out in a timely manner because people were losing their jobs and confused about what to apply for and how,” said Thai.

“So that led to a lot of sleepless nights.”

Bảo Vệ Collective isn’t the only group tackling this service gap. Across the country, many settlement and grassroots organizations are taking on the role of translators to help immigrant groups overcome language barriers. And many stress that translation work is just the first step in building equitable access to COVID-19 support.

Patching the gaps

For many organizations, a popular method for delivering support has been through a phone service — especially as low-income or elderly individuals might face challenges accessing materials online.

For instance, B.C.-based settlement organization MOSAIC’s Health Navigator initiative uses international medical graduates — who have the knowledge but lack a Canadian licence to practise — to guide newcomers through medical information over the phone. First launched in partnership with the Burnaby Division of Family Practice, which serves a city where 50 per cent of the population are immigrants, the initiative can provide support in 18 different languages.

“We have launched a network of international medical graduates in the community to come together and do peer support,” said Zarghoona Wakil, co-manager of the initiative and MOSAIC’s senior manager of specialized and innovative programs.

“In the COVID situation, the international medical doctors are really handy [because] they have language capacity as well as cultural background.”

Similarly, the Somali Canadian Cultural Society in Edmonton has launched a hotline with groups across the province to support Somali Albertans.

“There are a lot of small business owners in the city of Edmonton and also Calgary and other places where those people … are not proficient in either English or French,” said Jibril Ibrahim, president of the society.

“The main concern is they don’t understand what the requirements are. And some people might be having their employment coming to an end, so they are thinking ‘What am I going to do with that?’ because to find a job at this moment is very difficult.”

Ibrahim added that the society is also producing videos to make the information more accessible to communities that are more oriented towards oral communications.

Other organizations like Ontario’s Lotus STEMM, which focuses on empowering South Asian women in the sciences, also work to debunk COVID-19 misinformation.

“We don’t have debunking happening in the native language that people are speaking so people are more inclined to believe things that’s coming through WhatsApp or Facebook because it’s either coming from someone that they trust, or it could just be family and friends back home sending it in a language that they emotionally connect with,” said Lotus STEMM founder Dr. Roopali Chaudhary.

In particular, they have been producing videos tackling myths and overly simplistic home remedies in more than 10 South Asian languages.

“A lot of the misinformation has a catch. They have something that’s emotional. We come from communities that take pride in our identity, in our traditions and unfortunately, part of that comes with like, ‘Well, for years, having home remedies has helped us — why wouldn’t [they] work now?’” Chaudhary said.

Building communities

But these efforts are more than just translating information, as groups stress the importance of also understanding different communities’ cultural interpretations.
“Canadian society is increasingly becoming diverse,” said Wakil.

“Obviously, when we are thinking about system change, we should consider the needs of all our diverse population. It’s not an easy thing obviously, but … culture goes side by side. People have different cultural practices even in regards to COVID. Some people pray, some other people seek information, people seek their comfort in the way that they are used to.”

The way that information is delivered could also be better organized.

“It’s not just a translation that’s important, but also how the information will be shared and provided to the people who need it,” said Ibrahim, adding that there should be more partnerships with community hubs that already have connections with and trust from the community.

In response, governments say they understand the urgency of these needs, pointing to existing translated materials and collaborative initiatives.

For instance, the City of Vancouver and the BC Centre for Disease Control have guides in a variety of commonly used languages. In a statement to Ricochet, the City added that it is also sharing translated information both on- and off-line, such as through “drop-offs by property use inspectors [and] distribution by community groups.”

Similarly, the City of Toronto says that it is translating information into the top 10 languages spoken at home according to the 2016 census, ranging from Mandarin to Tamil to Spanish. The city also utilizes Google Translate to quickly translate its website into 51 languages, while also working with community partners as interpreters.

Meanwhile, the government of Canada provides health-related materials in almost 30 languages. For translated information on financial aid programs like CERB, Canada Revenue Agency tells Ricochet that it has “a directory of employees” who can assist callers who are not fluent in either English or French.

But community groups believe there is still more work to be done to increase language accessibility, given Canada’s incredible diversity as well as the high demand for health and financial support.

And even as many grassroots organizations focus on their community’s particular language, they say that there is a lot of collaboration with each other.

“We do have support from other cultural groups so we’re not exclusively engaging with the Vietnamese community,” Truong said, noting grassroots groups like Sulong UBC, which focuses on the Filipinx community.

“We are in solidarity with a lot of different community groups who are doing similar work, trying to protect and to really care for their respective cultural groups.”

Ultimately, they view their translation efforts as a step in community-building, especially during a time of separation due to COVID-19.

“It’s so nice because in a time when we’re all physically distant, it really created this heartwarming sense of community to hear from people who wanted to help in any way they could,” Thai said.