Jonesboro, Arkansas – Melisa Laelan is used to challenges.
Four years ago, a mumps outbreak affected the Marshallese community in northwest Arkansas. Laelan, the founder and executive director of the Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese, said they were able to move quickly, with help from the health department, to translate information so all those within the community could stay informed. The speed and lethality of the novel coronavirus has her a lot more worried.
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“Why didn’t we have all these resources before?” Laelan said. “There are certain communities that are going to be left out, simply because they have a language barrier. I’m being bombarded with requests to translate.”
To fill the “big gap” in information, Laelan has been working overtime to ensure her community of approximately 12,000 are keeping up to date with everything.
“In our case, there are a few offices that the Marshallese communities trust. We’re one of them,” Laelan said. “So, if I’m confused, how do you think the community is going to respond?”
Through the insistence of Lelan’s office, churches have closed, a move that initially received some pushback in the community. With those natural gathering places to share information no longer an option, the executive director has been leaning on the “cheapest way” to get information out: including leaning on social media to do livestreams and share videos and posts. They stress limiting gatherings, washing hands and taking other proactive measures that the general American population is also taking.
Laelan said she is also reminding people they are at particular risk because the Marshallese communities in the US have high incidences of chronic diseases. And she’s doing it while keeping up with other work and priorities – and receiving profanity-laced emails from non-Marshallese communities telling her she’s not doing enough.
“There’s small changes, but not in the big way that we are hoping,” Laelan said.
Mixed messages, misinformation
The Marshallese are not the only ones struggling to keep up. In Des Moines, Iowa, a mid-sized city with a history of welcoming refugees for decades, more than 100 languages are spoken.
According to Pablo Ortega, director of the English as a Second Language programme at the Des Moines Public Schools system, around 22 percent of those students qualify for ELL services. That percentage swells to more than half the student body, if parents that do not speak English as a second language are included. The sheer size can be hard to keep up with, especially for people who come from language backgrounds where there is no representative at one of the many non-profits and state agencies providing necessary services to refugees and other underserved populations in Iowa.
Earlier this month, Governor Kim Reynolds announced that schools would be closed at least until April 13, a message that Ortega both applauded and said can be communicated pretty easily.
“But the other aspects of serving this community is one that I am thinking will start to be a higher priority,” Ortega said, listing off worries like 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 slowing everything down.
“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.’ When the message is fractured, especially with a population that doesn’t speak English as its first language, then you’re exacerbating the problem that much more in terms of getting the messaging out there,” said Ortega.
Zack Balcha, a community navigator at the Des Moines-based Ethnic Minorities of Burma Advocacy and Resource Center (EMBARC), said countering misinformation has also been a problem. He said the centre has expanded its resources to include the Congolese and Eritreans populations – something that was already in the works, but was expedited with the outbreak of COVID-19.
“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 do not read and write in any language, or do not have access to Wi-Fi or a computer at home, or possibly do not even know how to use a computer.
For those who do have access to a computer, Balcha said there is the added worry that what people are consuming is false, including channels that purport to be updates from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“If you go to the history of the Facebook or YouTube channel, you can see that the name was changed. For example, the one I saw was Alexandria Ocasio Cortez for President 2020. And then, it goes to another name and then finally to a COVID-19 update from CDC. What they are doing is selling their products or getting more followers,” Balcha said.
Like Laelan, EMBARC is also sharing their own videos on social media, which Balcha said is being viewed heavily by people outside of Iowa, an indication of how scarce the information is in many languages around the world, not just in Iowa. He said it is impossible to do a video for every news update, and instead tries to provide broad, useful information.
“People from South Dakota, Utah and Atlanta have called me and said this is good for their community, too,” Balcha said.
For Ortega, he said one silver lining is that Des Moines has benefitted from being a smaller, more insulated city – something that has given him and his colleagues across the city a little more time to prepare.
“I better knock on wood, but our levels in terms of numbers and confirmed cases, compared to other places like Illinois, next door, or out East or out West, we’re not even the same ballpark,” Ortega said.