Are Coronavirus Lockdown Messages Getting Through To Minority Groups?

Fears that people who have limited English may not be receiving important information have prompted some community leaders to take matters into their own hands.

From figuring out who qualifies for work, school and travel, to where to get help and how to exercise, or whether children can visit parents who are separated, the coronavirus lockdown has already proved confusing for many.

But in communities where English is not the first language, there are fears some messages are being missed altogether.

Doctors of The World, an independent humanitarian movement that helps excluded people access healthcare, has produced Covid-19 advice for people in 34 languages – in partnership with the British Red Cross, Migrant Help and Clear Voice.

Many, though, believe the constantly changing situation is still not reaching some members of different communities.

“I think people need to hear the coronavirus messages in their own language to have that connection and recognition that it is something that is about them too,” Saima Mohsin, a British Pakistani woman living in south London, told HuffPost UK.

″Unless you see someone who looks like you and sounds like you, you do not necessarily think that what they are talking about applies to you.”

Saima Mohsin
Saima Mohsin
Saima Mohsin

Mohsin is frustrated that bodies such as the World Health Organisation or Public Health England (PHE) have not developed simple coronavirus video messages in all the different and diverse languages that exist in the UK.

“Unless you see someone who looks like you and sounds like you, you do not necessarily think that what they are talking about applies to you.”

- Saima Mohsin

Mohsin added: “There is massive information overload at the moment with daily briefings and health information – and there is also a lot of conflicting information.

″A lot of people who are not from an English background are probably watching lots of different channels from their countries of heritage and are being bombarded with a lot of confusing and contradictory information.

″But not everyone watches TV and what is needed is messages in different languages which can be shared on different platforms putting across the key coronavirus messages in their simplest form.”

Dr Samia Latif, who is based in Leicester, is a consultant in communicable disease control and is also chair of the BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) network for Public Health England.

Her personal and professional view – not necessarily that of PHE – is that there are linguistic and cultural barriers in getting some communities to understand the coronavirus messaging.

“Language is a big hurdle and barrier when it comes to access to health services – and that’s even in peacetime, let alone when we are dealing with a huge crisis like coronavirus,” she says.

To tackle this, she has recorded a podcast spoken in Urdu and is sharing it to increase awareness.

Dr Samia Latif, a consultant in communicable disease control and chair of the BAME network for Public Health England
Dr Samia Latif, a consultant in communicable disease control and chair of the BAME network for Public Health England
Dr Samia Latif

“I recorded the podcast in Urdu as I felt particularly the elderly in our communities would benefit from hearing it rather than getting confusing messages from other people.” she told HuffPost UK.

Dr Latif, a mother of three, believes cultural and religious factors are also an issue when it comes to coronavirus preventative measures. She said it was important to explain the reasoning to communities properly.

“I have heard people in my network say about the coronavirus pandemic: ‘This is God’s will – what will be will be.’

“I have explained why this is not the correct approach and the way I have explained it to them is that you need ‘faith with action’.

“Yes, you have your faith and that is a good anchor during troubling times. But faith without action is meaningless. You need to take action as well.

“All major faiths will agree that it is not right to put other people’s lives at risk. It is about taking preventative measures to protect other people as well as yourself.”

While Dr Latif feels there is definitely an issue with a language barrier preventing messages filtering through to some people, she believes pictures and visual images are a great way of increasing awareness – even for native English speakers.

“I think the messages from government are not fully penetrating through to everyone, even to educated people who have English as their first language. There are a lot of rumours and scaremongering on social media.

“There are all sorts of misconceptions and people choose to believe what they want to believe unless you give them very clear and simple messaging.”

“Language is a big hurdle and barrier when it comes to access to health services – let alone when we are dealing with a huge crisis like coronavirus”

- Dr Samia Latif

Mohsin, who was an international correspondent and presenter and has covered 28 countries, says her mission is to consider those who mainstream society sometimes does not.

To help increase awareness and education, she has created videos of herself speaking in Punjabi to encourage people to help stop the spread of coronavirus by staying at home, and giving them the key messages on how to protect themselves and others.

She said: “The important points to get across are that we all need to take this very seriously, and the gravity of the issue for the most vulnerable.

“I have also highlighted that no one is safe from coronavirus, really, as some people have it without displaying any symptoms.”

Karishma Patel, 29, who lives in Preston, says there is a language barrier in some Asian communities, particularly among the older generation, and she feels some people are missing out on the government daily updates on the changing situation as they are only spoken in English.

However, she says that even when there are individuals who don’t speak or understand English, they usually have children or family members who can translate the coronavirus messages to them.

Karishma Patel
Karishma Patel

Karishma says social distancing and isolation to tackle coronavirus are especially important within Asian communities as health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and asthma are common.

“In the Asian community, it is the older generation of parents and grandparents who are not realising the severity of the situation.” she said.

“I do think there needs to be more messages put out in different languages such as Urdu. And I feel messages in other languages from authority figures who they respect would help people take the coronavirus pandemic more seriously.”

Not everyone agrees. Atifa Hansrot, 25, who teaches English as a foreign language, feels that the message has started to sink in with all communities, and doesn’t believe not speaking or understanding English is necessarily a barrier.

Atifa Hansrot
Atifa Hansrot

“I think maybe people didn’t realise the severity of coronavirus at first, but as time has progressed and more and more people are dying of it, the enormity of it all is starting to sink in with everyone.” she said.

“There are deaths all over the world and this is a global issue so just because you don’t speak English, I don’t think you will be unaware of what is going on.

“I think it is important that people who don’t have English as their own language should be updated regularly by family members who do speak and understand English.”

Atifa told HuffPost UK that her own mother doesn’t really speak English but was too afraid to leave the house due to coronavirus even before the lockdown happened.

She added that the UK’s restrictions, brought in a week ago, have been a major step forward.

As a teacher to students who come from countries including the Middle East, Spain and Thailand who she is now teaching via online measures, she said they were petrified and before the lockdown, couldn’t understand why shops and restaurants in the UK were still open.

“I think the lockdown has played an important part in making people from all communities realise the implications and how serious coronavirus is.”

“At times of anxiety, people are much more reassured and are likely to heed messages in a language that they are familiar with. It has a calming effect.”

- Baroness Sayeeda Warsi

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, a member of the House of Lords and pro-vice-chancellor at the University of Bolton, has also recorded a few videos in Urdu to explain issues around coronavirus and to clarify social distancing to people.

She told HuffPost UK that language barriers are more of an issue for the older generation in communities, particularly those in their 70s and 80s.

But she feels increasing awareness to people in other languages is a responsibility for everyone and that those who are bilingual or trilingual should play their part in educating people.

“At times of anxiety, people are much more reassured and are likely to heed messages in a language that they are familiar with.” she said. “It has a calming effect.

“I think spreading the message and increasing awareness is a responsibility that falls on all of us and not just the government.

“We can all amplify the messages that are going out and spread awareness in different languages.”

A sign at an entrance to the Underground station.
A sign at an entrance to the Underground station.

But language may not be the only obstacle for some communities.

She explained: “In societies where mixing with parents and siblings is a daily occurence, to suddenly not be able to see people is a big thing.

“For example, in the Asian community, when there is a birth or a death, a lot of people will go round to give their congratulations or pay their respects.

“Popping in to see people and sharing meals is a big part of Asian culture, so it is a big cultural shift to suddenly not meet up with people outside your own home.

“It fundamentally goes against the grain of everything they have ever done and the traditional way of life.”

But Warsi adds this social shift is difficult for everyone – not just Asian communities.

“When things are hard, your usual instinct is to go round and see someone.” she said to HuffPost UK. “But this is a unique situation where the correct measure is to not see people.

“Most people want to be together, but we are being told we need to stay apart.

“This is very difficult in every culture as isolation goes against human nature. But it is important everyone follows the measures so we can get through this.”


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