Lesly, 41, is a Spanish-speaking mother from Waltham, Mass. She lost her healthcare along with her office-cleaning job at the end of March.
In an interview with the Boston Globe, she talked of how her body is racked with symptoms of COVID-19. She has not been tested because her doctor told her she needed to have health insurance.
The fact is that tests for the coronavirus illness are free for uninsured people under a federal law passed last month, but Lesly – who like 8 percent of the adult population living in the United States is limited-English proficient – has struggled to get accurate information.
“I’m very scared,” she said through an interpreter. “I don’t know if I’m going to wake up tomorrow and feel worse. A family down the street, the whole family is infected.”
Lesly’s story is reflective of a hard truth that is emerging across the U.S. Hispanics, and multicultural Americans in general, are being impacted by the coronavirus far more than the average American. Communication failures are partially to blame, creating a weak link in the chain that will likely impact the health and safety of all U.S. citizens.At Mass General Hospital near Lesly's home, a reported 35 to 40 percent of COVID-19 patients are Latino and at least 40 percent have limited English proficiency. The former figure is four times the number of Latinos that are typically patients in the hospital.
These numbers represent an “absolute epidemic,” according to Mass General’s Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer Joseph Betancourt. “This is not about black and brown. It’s about economic conditions and people living in highly dense areas.”
Trend appears across the U.S.
Data coming in from across the U.S. shows the pandemic is having a disproportionate impact on multicultural communities, several of which are reporting infection rates that far outpace their population.
New York City reported Wednesday that Hispanic victims make up 34 percent of all fatalities from COVID-19, while comprising 29 percent of the city’s population. Black residents account for 28 percent of the city’s deaths while making up 22 percent of its population.
Why is this happening?
Experts say the virus has hit many Black, Latino, and immigrant-rich neighborhoods especially hard because residents there often work essential jobs in grocery stores, delivering food, and operating public transit, leaving them more exposed to the virus. They also typically live in close quarters, making it harder to practice social distancing. High rents have forced many families to double and triple up in cramped quarters, making it nearly impossible to quarantine.
These communities also have higher incidents of underlying health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and asthma, placing them at higher risk for complications if they contract COVID-19.
There is also the profound language-barrier issue. Across the country, non-English speakers have complained about their inability to receive timely and accurate information about the virus, as well as care in their native language from healthcare providers.
U.S. Congressman Joaquin Castro noted the risk factors for Latinos, saying the group is less likely to have access to health care.
“We are seeing evidence that communities of color, including immigrant communities, are having higher rates of coronavirus cases, even though testing is still not widely available,” said Castro, the chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. “We also know that Latino communities are especially vulnerable since they are more likely to be uninsured or under-insured, do not have equal access to healthcare services, and less than one in five Latino workers can work from home.”
What can be done?
Excluding limited-English proficient communities, as well as the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing, from the information loop jeopardizes the health and safety of every person, regardless of language, culture, or ability. Simply put: effective communication with these populations is vital to flattening the curve.
It is essential that all organizations - including state and local governments, healthcare providers, insurers, pharmacies, and testing locations – ensure that everyone has access to the same information at the same time, regardless of the language they speak.
These organizations also need to inform vulnerable populations of the resources available to them. For example, telehealth can accommodate limited-English proficient individuals, as well as the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, by including interpreters.
Critical documents also should be translated into the languages most frequently spoken in a given region. These include notices, posters, patient letters, and screening forms.
Generally speaking, your organization should make interpretation available for those who need it so that they can ask questions, receive answers, and generally be understood.
LanguageLine can help
The onset of this pandemic came incredibly quickly. It’s understandable that most organizations did not have time to fully prepare communication and care plans in multiple languages. Given how quickly this health crisis is moving, taking on this task likely feels complicated and overwhelming.
Fortunately, language-services providers like LanguageLine have a lot of experience helping organizations such as yours bridge language and cultural gaps with their communities.
Resolving these issues is often much easier and more efficient than you might think. “Business as unusual” is business as usual for us. Our business operations have been unaffected by the health crisis, and we stand ready to assist you with the following needs:
• Video interpreting
• Mobile interpreting and the Interpreter app
• Translation and Localization
• Distance learning and eLearning
It all starts with a conversation. Please contact us via our website or call 800-752-6096.