Lost in Translation: Immigrant communities struggle to get timely information about COVID-19 in native languages

The daily and hourly flood of critical information about the COVID-19 crisis has made communicating with immigrant communities in Minnesota a challenging and frustrating task, leaving some non-English speakers struggling to access public health and financial resources.

Ensuring that information was being properly translated was such a challenge during the early days of the pandemic that the state health department started funneling more than $1 million to community organizations to help address the issue.

Members of Southeast Asian communities in the Twin Cities raised particular concerns about delayed access to information, according to public records reviewed by 5 INVESTIGATES and interviews conducted over three weeks in April.

Early warnings

As the Southeast Asian Community Specialist for the city of Minneapolis, Michael Yang began sharing concerns regarding a lack of information about COVID-19 in the Hmong language even before the first positive case in Minnesota in early March.

"I knew about this early on, so I got to the city and said, ‘we’ve got to do something,’" Yang said.

Yang, whose family arrived in St. Paul from a refugee camp in Thailand in 1979, said the current crisis reminds him of those times.

"It brings back vivid memories of the refugee camp where you’re shut down. Your circle – you’re supposed to stay in the camp. You’re not supposed to leave," Yang said. "We went through a lot of war, a lot of relocation from one place to another. So, we knew we had to prepare."

In emails from Yang to colleagues at the city of Minneapolis on March 5, Yang wrote that the "Southeast Asian community is scared and confused about the virus."

He also described a "lack of timely and accurate information" about COVID-19 in the Hmong language from the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH).

"Not all people have access to the internet. Not all people have access to reading materials," Yang said.

State response

Danushka Wanduragala, MDH’s international health coordinator, acknowledged there was an initial delay in getting information about COVID-19 translated into the Hmong language on the state’s website.

"We had plans for doing the initial 10 languages," Wanduragala said. "The partner that was going to review the Hmong materials ended up not being able to come through on that, so we ended up having to find others to review it."

"I can imagine if someone from the Hmong community went to our website and saw many other languages … and were wondering ‘where’s the Hmong content?’ I think that would be totally understandable."

Wanduragala said the translation review problems have since been resolved and the health department now has a webpage in Hmong dedicated to coronavirus information.

"Information in English was hard to stay on top of, day-to-day. I mean, things were changing – new recommendations, new guidelines were coming out," Wanduragala said.

MDH has since committed $750,000 to community-based organizations to help share specific information about COVID-19.

The department recently pledged to distribute $670,000 to cultural media contacts to "help MDH in getting culturally relevant, linguistically appropriate, accurate, and timely messages related to COVID-19," according to a request for services reviewed by 5 INVESTIGATES.

"Sometimes it feels like you’re shoveling sand and more sand is pouring in," Wanduragala said. "You just keep trying to do what you can to advocate for resources."

Challenges remain

Other members of the Southeast Asian community say they are still shouldering the burden of communicating important messages in their own languages.

Sunny Chanthanouvong, executive director of the Lao Assistance Center of Minnesota, requested more direct communication from the state, asking it to "provide the face … and the information" to his community in early March, but he said that has not always happened.

"Information from the Governor’s Office – nobody translated it … For example, about stimulus money – I’m the one who translated it," Chanthanouvong said.

The Hmong American Partnership said it has been working with several state agencies but the demand on the organization has tripled during the COVID-19 crisis.

Executive Director Bao Vang said delays in translating information have affected minority-owned businesses, putting them at a disadvantage competing for stimulus money.

"Simple stuff like, ‘where do I go get the forms? I don’t have a computer at home, how do I fill this out?’" Vang said. "These delayed days translate into missed opportunity because some of the banks are out of the allocation."

The Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) reports that about half of all small business emergency loan money – more than $2 million – has been passed through local lenders who serve communities of color.

To help better facilitate information about those loans, DEED is now holding community conference calls three times a week – a critical resource for those without reliable internet access.

Despite the increased communication efforts from DEED and MDH, the head of the Minnesota Hmong Chamber, Yao Yaj, said the state can still do a better job of distributing translated information to her members.

"They need the same real-time (information)," Yaj said. "Once the English part is out, there needs to be a translated, audio-recorded interpretation of that news."

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