BOSTON CITY COUNCILORS Julia Mejia and Ed Flynn held a hearing Friday focused on the language barriers non-native English speakers are facing during the coronavirus pandemic.
Fittingly, the hearing was the first to be translated into Spanish, Haitian Creole, Cantonese, and Mandarin as it was being conducted. Mejia has a personal connection to the effort. She was born in the Dominican Republic and immigrated to Dorchester when she was five years old—raised by a single mother who was undocumented. Mejia said she grew up translating for families on her block who only spoke Spanish.
“I saw then a lot of the problems we’re seeing today,” she said.
More than a third of the city’s residents speak another language at home, and 17 percent speak English “less than very well,” according to Boston Planning and Development Agency. The point of the hearing was to brainstorm ways to improve language parity and access, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s an issue that surfaced prominently in early March, when COVID-19 caused a stampede to the state’s unemployment insurance portal, then only available in English. Since then, it has been translated into Spanish and other languages.
With many immigrant communities among the hardest hit by the coronavirus, Flynn said it’s important to prioritize language assistance so residents who speak a language other than English have equitable access to information, services, and programs.
Pooja Chandrashekar, a first-year medical student at Harvard Medical School, said she noticed in early March that a mobile health clinic was having difficulty serving predominantly immigrant and refugee patients.
“Many of these patients have limited English proficiency,” she said. “The lack of multilingual COVID-19 information meant staff were unable to provide patients with information in their native language that could protect them and their families.”
Chandrashekar responded by founding the COVID-19 Health Literacy Project, which translates COVID-19 materials for Boston Children’s Hospital, Massachusetts General Hospital, the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, and dozens of other organizations.
Suzanne Lee, the founder of the Chinese Progressive Association, urged councilors to hold town halls in the native language of those attending. She said members of the Chinese community have told her housing assistance materials are often not translated.
“People getting their rent subsidy application in is a huge issue,” she said. “And a lot of this isn’t just an issue of translation. By the time we get them through translation, everything [money] is already gone.”
Carlos Espinoza-Toro of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corp., an affordable housing and social services organization, has been working to connect small business owners with state and federal funding sources as their livelihoods are threatened by the coronavirus shutdown. He said the lack of multilingual translation makes people “afraid of applying for loans.”
In Boston, the city’s 311 information line has on-demand interpretation services, and all COVID-19 information is translated into 10 languages. Text alerts are set up to go out in 11.
But forms for filing a complaint with the Zoning Board of Appeal or presentations at city meetings are often still in English.
City Councilor Lydia Edwards, who in February helped pass an executive order with Mayor Marty Walsh focused on the Zoning Board of Appeal, said one of the goals of that order was to ensure translation services would be available within 45 days.
While an official from the city’s Office of Language and Communications Access said staff are working on providing translation services, Edwards said the services should be up and running now. She said the order “is not a set of goals, but a requirement,” and added that “we’re out of compliance with the executive order.”
Yusufi Vali, director of Boston’s office for immigrant advancement, said the city is aware of gaps in language access but trying to balance speed with quality. “We can’t compromise quality because wrong information ends up in people’s hands,” he said.
Vali said the city has ramped up efforts to get COVID-19 information out to Somolians, Brazilians, and other nationalities using hotlines, Whatsapp groups, and ethnic media roundtables.
Many requests the office has gotten involving assistance in another language are around cash and food assistance, he said. The office has hired a full-time staff member who speaks Mandarin and Spanish who starts in two weeks.