Language Restrictions Exacerbate Pandemic Toll

A recently published study is stressing the necessity of accessible multilingual information on public health during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The research—published in JAMA Network Open, a journal of the American Medical Association—underscores the various social and demographic factors associated with higher incidence and death rates of COVID-19, such as limited English proficiency, race and disability.
“(COVID-19) neither created the conditions for health disparities nor did it reveal previously unrecognized social inequality,” the paper reads. “Rather, this pandemic has exacerbated long standing racial/ethnic, social, political, and economic inequities in the US to once again ensure that the most marginalized and under-resourced communities experience the worst outcomes.”
Researchers at the University of Michigan collected data on the virus’ incidence and death rates throughout the early weeks of the pandemic, from January 20 to July 29, and examined social risk factors using the CDC’s Social Vulnerability Index, which measures community susceptibility to adverse health consequences. The SVI takes into account a wide range of demographic factors in a community, including poverty rates, racial minority status, housing types, and English proficiency.
Across the board, communities with high SVI scores tended to be hit hardest by the pandemic—a 0.1 increase on the SVI (which is scored from 0-1) was found to increase incidence rates by 14.3%. Counties with high populations of non-English speakers were found to have higher rates of both COVID-19 incidence and mortality. An SVI subindex for racial minority status and limited English proficiency was particularly significant, accounting for a 21.7% increase in incidence rate per 0.1-point increase and a 16.9% increase in mortality rate.
“As limited English proficiency was significantly associated with COVID-19 outcomes, public service announcements in other languages could be used to disseminate public health guidelines regarding mask use, social distancing, and other mitigation strategies,” the paper reads.
Throughout the pandemic, health departments across the country have been criticized for not making COVID-19-related announcements accessible in languages other than English. In January, the Virginia Health Department came under hot water for using Google Translate for its Spanish-language translations, while residents of Minnesota have found that much of the COVID-19 data available in Spanish is outdated. In an effort to mitigate the negative impacts of the language barrier, members of Congress introduced the Coronavirus Language Access Act, however the bill did not pass.


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