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News > U.S.

Language Barriers Leave US Communities out of COVID-19 Info

  • Sixty-six million U.S. residents ages five and older speak a language other than English at home.

    Sixty-six million U.S. residents ages five and older speak a language other than English at home. | Photo: EFE

Published 31 March 2020

The coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. also raises the issue of access to information for those who do not speak English.

Various communities across the United States (U.S.) are struggling to keep up with information concerning the spread and the dangerousness of the novel coronavirus because of language barriers, a report from Al Jazeera showed Tuesday.


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In a city with a long history of receiving refugees like Des Moines, Iowa, not less than 100 spoken languages exist.

Around 22 percent of the students in public schools qualify for English Language Learners (ELL) services, according to Pablo Ortega, director of the English as a Second Language program at the Des Moines Public Schools system. 

That figure grows larger if parents that do not speak English are included.

For these people, and particularly for those who speak languages with no representative at one of the non-profit and state agencies providing services to refugees, staying up to date with the information on the outbreak turns out to be a challenge.

Governor Kim Reynolds announced earlier this month that schools would be closed at least until April 13, a message that was easy to pass Ortega said.

"But the other aspects of serving this community is one that I am thinking will start to be a higher priority," Ortega said, listing utilities, rent, and food. "We really don't have a handle on what those needs are just yet."

He also pointed out that mixed messages at the federal level are making the transfer of information even more difficult.


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"I wish there was a more unified federal response to this, as it would make it easier for the rest of us to say 'this is the process or the approach,’" Ortega said.

A community navigator at the Des Moines-based Ethnic Minorities of Burma Advocacy and Resource Center (Embarc) Zack Balcha said fighting misinformation is also another problem. 

"Some people say, 'Africans can't get the virus.' Or 'Vitamin C can stop the virus.' Yeah, it can help you to fight back, but it's not going to stop the virus. So, there are things we have to elaborate," Balcha said, noting that many refugees are illiterate or do not have access to Wi-Fi or a computer at home.

For those who do have access to a computer, he said many face the danger of consuming false information.

Embarc, like other non-profit organizations, is sharing their own videos on social media. Balcha said the videos are viewed heavily by people outside of Iowa, which indicates how scarce the information is in other languages than English. 

He said it is impossible to do a video for every COVID-19 update, and instead he tries to provide broad and useful information.

The U.S. became last week the new epicenter of the virus with over 187,000 cases across all states.

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