How translators in the Netherlands are making Covid-19 information more accessible

A sign in the Vondelpark in Amsterdam warns people to keep their distance to fight the spread of Covid-19. Photo: Robin Van Lonkhuijsen/ANP/AFP
Vulnerable communities around the world are faced with lack of access to information on Covid-19 and how to protect against it, including immigrants who don't speak the local language. Across Europe, initiatives have been emerging to fill in the gap.

This article is part of Changing the Narrative. Articles in this series are written by student or early career journalists who took part in The Local's training course on solutions-focused migration reporting. Find out more about the project here.

Across generations and countries, the year of 2020 has brought an unprecedented challenge: how to navigate a global pandemic. With vaccines still in development, the most efficient resources to fight back the new coronavirus at the moment are, according to experts, social distancing and information.

For many people, neither one nor the other can be taken for granted. Vulnerable communities around the world are faced with lack of access to information on Covid-19 and how to protect against it.

This is the case for many asylum seekers, refugees and other immigrants living in European countries where they don't fully master the local language or English, making official government guidelines and information inaccessible for them.

In a report released in October, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that immigrants face a much higher risk of becoming infected with Covid-19 than native-born people. In some countries the OECD looked at, the infection risk can double for immigrants when compared to native-born.

Among many factors that contribute to the increased risk, including higher incidence of poverty, crowded housing and concentrated employment in jobs where physical distancing is hard, the Organization states that “lack of host-country language proficiency for some immigrants may hamper access to information on Covid-19”.

Around Europe, initiatives to fill in this gap and provide information for communities that don't speak the local language have been emerging.

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In the Netherlands, what started out unpretentiously as a Facebook group to translate news reports for friends at the height of the coronavirus crisis has now evolved into a page with over 35,000 followers.

Rather than translating government guidelines, the Facebook page NOS in English seeks to offer contextual information on the coronavirus crisis in the Netherlands by translating the newscasts of NOS – the Dutch Broadcast Foundation, one of the broadcasters that form the Netherlands' public broadcasting system – to English.

“I noticed that all students around me were unable to catch up on the latest news, or very much lost in translation, and were basically in a state of panic constantly asking the Dutch students to translate what was going on,” recalls Noes Petiet, a university student based in Utrecht and one of the people responsible for the page, about the creation of the Facebook group in mid-March.

Internationals in the Netherlands began sharing the group and soon it became very popular. Only a week after it was first created, the volunteers – today a team of ten students – decided to transform it from a community group into a public page.

The demand surprised the group. “We assumed that in a country that is so internationally focused as the Netherlands, there will be some kind of journalistic source to keep everyone up to date, including those that don't speak Dutch,” says Petiet. “I guess we found a hole in the market.”

The Utrecht-based student explains that she believes the language barrier does not so much apply to practical information, as the government does make that available in English, but rather to contextual information about the crisis, which is important to grasp the bigger picture.

“It is more about how expats navigate through society, whose society they don't really know, and I think that proper journalism is highly important for understanding the bigger picture. Beyond the number of how many infections per day or how to get assessed, how do people respond to the measures? And what kind of impact does it have? Or critical comments and all those kinds of, well, contextual factors of the dynamics,” says Petiet.

With very little understanding of Dutch, Liliana Rossi, an Italian national living in the Netherlands, has been relying on the Facebook page, along with other English-language outlets, to stay updated on coronavirus in the country.

Rossi says that she partially understands the lack of specific and updated information coming from the government and while she, as the one who decided to move to the country, should be making more efforts to adapt and learn the language, it would be nice to receive such information from official sources.

For Petiet, the government or the NOS itself should take on the responsibility of translating information. “There are people that are educated and are equipped to do the task that we are doing that could take over for us,” she says.

This is also one the reasons why they aim to keep the project on a voluntary basis. “We do not want to have any financial compensation for it, because we don't want to profit from the pandemic. And also we're not official and professional translators, so we don't feel it is appropriate to ask for money for something we are not really trained for,” says the student.

Covid-19 and health inequality

Apart from informal initiatives such as the student-led Facebook page, existing organizations have also taken on the mission of translating information, targeting especially more vulnerable communities in lower socioeconomic conditions. That is the case of Pharos, a Dutch organization focused on health inequalities in the Netherlands.

The organization began translating basic government information on the coronavirus at the end of February, when the first case of the coronavirus was registered in the Netherlands. What began as a volunteer-driven project to make information available in five languages has now grown to a more formalized initiative which offers translations in 13 languages.

“When the [coronavirus] crisis started, we already saw that the information that was provided by the government was too difficult for people who are illiterate, with too many difficult words and very few images,” explains Mohammed Azzouz, a programme manager at Pharos who coordinates the translation work.

The organization then began translating government guidelines not only to other languages but also adapting it to a more simple and easily understandable vocabulary, including illustrations. “We validated with people from our target group whether they understood the rewritten information,” said Azzouz in a phone interview.


Mohammed Azzouz. Photo: Pharos

After the information in the first five languages were published, Pharos started receiving requests and demands for information in other languages, he says. The organization then adopted a sort of informal decision process: when they received more than five requests, they began processing the requested language.

One indicator that their work has been well-received was the number of page views and downloads of the images on Pharos' website. The website has registered more than 350,000 views, while the informational material has been downloaded over 100,000 times, said Azzouz, adding that other organizations download these materials to display them in public places like supermarkets, mosques and schools.

Today, Pharos offers basic coronavirus guidelines in 13 languages: Dutch, Arabic, Traditional Chinese, Simplified Chinese, English, Farsi, French, Papiamento, Polish, Somali, Spanish, Tigrinya and Turkish. In order to offer so many languages, the organization had to transition from volunteer-based work to a partnership with a translation bureau, said Azzouz.

Pharos is partially funded by the government, along with other organizations. According to Azzouz, the organization is in contact with the government to secure more funding to move forward with the work. Besides constantly updating the available information, the programme manager intends to broaden the scope.

“I think we should do more, especially when we are facing the whole vaccination which is coming. A lot of questions will arise around vaccination,” he explains.

Azzouz believes the process works this way – with third-parties being responsible for translations, rather than the government doing it internally – exactly because the organizations better understand the demands and needs of the communities they aim to reach.

As an example he mentions how the recommendation to work from home has no resonance among some low-income groups who have jobs in factories, for instance, where social distancing is much more difficult.

The OECD report demonstrated that immigrants are less likely to be able to work remotely than native-born workers. According to the report, in around 75 percent of OECD countries the share of immigrants able to work from home is at least 5 percentage points lower than their native counterparts, often because they are concentrated in essential jobs.

“If you know why people act the way they do, you can create more effective tools. Because it doesn't help if you just keep spreading the basic information without being aware of the context people are in,” explains Azzouz.

Initiatives that aim to bridge these gaps are emerging in different forms across Europe. In Sweden, the #TellCorona campaign gathered personalities who are well-known to immigrant communities to disseminate information about the virus in different languages. Information in Somali, for example, is conveyed by Somali-Swedish Olympic athlete Mustafa Mohamed. Initiated by investigative journalist Nuri Kino, the campaign already features videos in 17 languages.

Other services aim to target specific groups or meet a particular need. In Austria, intercultural counselling and therapy centre Zebra has set up a 'worry hotline' with interpreters for those looking for some sort of psychological assistance. The hotline is available in eight languages.

Meanwhile an information hotline aimed at elderly people in the Netherlands was also organized by seniors group KBO-PCOB and NOOM, the Network of Organisations for Older Migrants, with the service available in nine languages.

Laís Martins is a Brazilian freelance journalist currently based in Amsterdam, whose work focuses on politics, human rights, and society.


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