Anuvir Singh, a 27-year-old from Fresno who is a medical student at UC San Francisco, is dispensing critical public health information in Punjabi in the response to the coronavirus crisis.

For the tens of thousands of people in the central San Joaquin Valley who don’t speak English at home, experts like Singh have become a critical resource in a world where life-saving public health information in a native language is either unavailable, distorted, or released too late.

In Fresno County, nearly 19% of residents ages 5 or older do not speak English well, according to 2017 estimates from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. Spanish, Hmong, and Punjabi are the top languages spoken at home, outside of English.

Last week, Singh was invited to answer questions about the COVID-19 crisis in Punjabi on a Facebook Live session hosted by Gurdeep Singh Shergill, a Fresno real estate agent whose Facebook page and weekend radio show on AM 900 are a popular source of information for the local Sikh community.

“I’ve been getting over 30 calls a day, asking what they should do,” Shergill said. Many people he has spoken to are scared and worried about older relatives. So he invited Singh, who grew up in his neighborhood, to help provide accurate health information in Punjabi after he saw that the medical student had translated and shared a frequently asked questions document on the COVID-19 crisis on his own Facebook page.

Many questions came in: How can I prevent myself from getting the virus? I’m young — will this actually affect me? What does social distancing mean? Can’t I just wear a mask? What symptoms should I be watching for?

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For Singh, what concerned him most was the lack of information on preventing transmission of the virus, or efforts to “flatten the curve” – a key focus of public health and medical professionals in order to avoid overburdening hospitals that are near capacity. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s “stay at home” order issued last week reflects the extreme measures governments are taking to prevent widespread transmission of the virus.

“This is a public health issue – everyone should have access to health care resources that people can understand and read in their own language,” said Singh.

His passion for language access has led him to participate in the Harvard Medical School COVID-19 Health Literacy Project, where he, along with other medical students, are working to make sure critical information is translated into multiple languages.

Translating public health information is not an easy task. In Punjabi, for example, there is no equivalent word to “virus,” Singh said.

The lack of timely translated information has also impacted workers age 65 and over or with compromised immune systems – some of whom are not receiving current information from their employers, according to Deep Singh, executive director of the Jakara Movement, a Fresno-based community organization serving Sikh communities throughout California.

Addressing information gaps

In Fresno’s large Hmong community, a delay of translated information meant that many people were going on with life as usual, including large gatherings.

The challenges don’t stop with public health information. The vast majority of resources available to those who are facing economic impacts as a result of local and statewide “stay at home” orders are available in English only. While many websites include a “translate” button at the top of the page, the translations are often unreliable, according to Christine Barker, executive director for Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries, a local organization that serves residents that who speak Hmong, Arabic, Lao, Ukranian, Kmer, Russian and Spanish.

Facing these barriers, their team has gotten creative. Dalya Hussein, a support specialist at FIRM, is recording voice translations of informational alerts and online learning instructions from local school districts in Arabic. Other staff are helping people file unemployment and other benefit claims over the phone in their native language.

Amparo Cid, a Fresno attorney, never saw herself as a public information figure until she started to see waves of misinformation about the COVID-19 crisis in Central Valley Latino communities. She and her business partner, Aida Macedo, have hosted two Facebook Live sessions to answer frequently asked questions about the coronavirus in Spanish, covering both health and economic-related issues stemming from the crisis. They plan to do these Spanish information sessions weekly on their Facebook page, Cid and Macedo Inc.

“We do not have a clear, unifying message from the president or the federal government,” Cid said. Because of that, people are receiving mixed-messages on how important it is to take this crisis seriously – and still think this is no different than the flu, she continued. “This is not about panicking; we are trying to dissect correct information so that families can make the right decisions for themselves.”

Having clear and consistent messaging from government agencies is also essential for building trust. “Having information directly from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), or the government – people can trust that,” Singh said. The resources that he translates are compiled from the CDC and UCSF, where he goes to school.

Government agencies respond

The CDC – the key federal agency tasked with informing the public about virus prevention and transmission – has developed some resources for organizations to share in other languages, but Punjabi and Hmong are not currently on the list. The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) has also issued some COVID-19 updates and information in Spanish and Chinese, and “are working continually to translate materials to ensure at-risk populations are receiving information,” a CDPH representative said via email.

Local governments, many without clear policies that require emergency or public health alerts to be conveyed in multiple languages, are now working to translate many of the announcements and orders made in the past week. Public officials often rely on organizations and media outlets that serve non-English speaking populations to help disseminate critical information.

But in 2020, the myriad of ways in which people receive and share information has become much more complicated. Where public agencies could once rely on getting word out to the Spanish-speaking community through key media outlets such as Univision, information today is much more digital – and moves much more quickly. Graphics that can be shared through Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or text message can be powerful in helping to get the word out through individual networks. Following Newsom’s “stay at home” order, the United Farm Workers created a graphic in Spanish outlining which services are allowed to stay open, shared widely on Facebook.

Fresno city communications director Mark Standriff indicated that the city is working to translate emergency information into Spanish, Hmong and Punjabi, and will post that on the city’s social media channels as soon as possible. Some council members, including Esmeralda Soria and Miguel Arias, have begun issuing their own translations of city orders into Spanish, Hmong, and Punjabi.

Some local school districts are working to make sure non-English-speaking parents are getting the most current information in their language. Fresno Unified has issued its most recent parent alerts in Spanish and Hmong. The district’s COVID-19 hotline, available to answer questions for parents, has Spanish and Hmong speakers available. (The number is 559-457-3395.) Central Unified School District also has been issuing their updates, including online learning resources, in Spanish and Punjabi.

These efforts are praised, and some say it can’t come soon enough.

“We are not going to know the impact of what information people should’ve had already a week or two from now. We do not have enough specialists, we do not have enough doctors, we do not have enough nurse practitioners in the Central Valley — and we should have taken action even sooner. This is a moment when we need critical messaging,” Cid emphasized.

Danielle Bergstrom is the policy and engagement editor for FresnoLand, a new venture of The Fresno Bee focused on housing, land use, water and development issues.

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