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BA's "My Turn" in The Providence Journal: We Can't Let Language Barriers Stifle Vaccination Efforts

December 13th, 2020

While medical professionals stare down round two of our COVID nightmare, the arrival of a vaccine in Rhode Island is like the bright star on top of our trees this holiday season. Indeed, it is a beacon of hope for so many whose loved ones have been seriously afflicted by the disease or who have cared for these patients for the past nine months.

It is imperative then that we learn from the bumps in the road that occurred with testing rollouts earlier this year. When negative national headlines surrounded communities such as Central Falls where the consequences of socioeconomic disparities created a horrific storm of disease transmission, the government was on its heels instead of on its toes when attempting to right the course. We need to proactively adjust the sails this time around to be highly effective in creating buy-in for the vaccine's use and distribution in our very diverse communities.

This is particularly a challenge in urban core neighborhoods, where there is a large non-native English speaking population, even more exacerbated when we adjust for languages that do not utilize Latin-based alphabets. Very few and far between are the official government communications based in Khmer script for our Southeast Asian residents, or Chinese pictographs, or Arabic for our neighbors from the Middle East.

My own mother-in-law's native language is Cantonese, and I can remember her not quite understanding the full scope of what COVID was or why there was such a big deal when it hit our state. Once my husband laid it out in her native language, she became the biggest promoter of guidance from our public health leaders.

In order to have better outcomes, we need to go the extra mile in different languages via digital video communications, mailers and multilingual media entities to reach those we didn't metaphorically capture last time around.

Effective communications also include having the right messenger. That, in some cultures, may not be a government official. Indeed, the cultural aspects of medicine are often overlooked in the midst of a pandemic, when time is of the essence. Yet, revered religious leaders or well-known community organizers might be the best people to connect with marginalized communities and work through cultural hesitations toward medical treatments.

As we look toward mass vaccination operations, it would be good to start now in connecting with these influencers in our faith communities and social organizations to create a more cohesive and effective community response. Government officials need to engage and empower other community leaders here — not act as though they alone have the right answers.

We all can agree that 2020 was a year of challenges, including many that will stick around in 2021. Yet, as we enter the new year, we should vow to be smarter and more inclusive in our approach to beating the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure we lift everyone, in communities both rich and poor, up and across the finish line.

Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung of Cranston is state representative-elect for District 15.

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