Do you speak COVID-19? The importance of language for effective communication across the response (March 2020)


In the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of marginalized people lack basic information about how to keep themselves and their communities safe and well. They include people who don't speak the dominant language where they live, people with no or low literacy, and people without access to different forms of communication. Some don’t know what to do and why to do it. As a consequence, they might not be able to make informed decisions about how to behave - which won’t slow the spread of disease. Marginalized people - like all - have a right to clear, accurate, and accessible information about the disease and response efforts. They need information in a language and format they understand. It must also be presented in a way that is relevant to them, and available in a channel they can access and trust.

Global response plans for COVID-19 identify risk communication and community engagement as a priority. That requires all responders to communicate effectively with communities, counter misinformation, and make sure people can hold them accountable. This brief outlines findings and recommendations on four key aspects to achieve these aims: language, format, relevant content, and channel.

Communicating in international lingua francas or national languages makes marginalized people more vulnerable. English, for example, is an official language in 35 countries. Yet only a minority of people in those countries learned English as a native language. Women, older people and people with disabilities in particular often have fewer educational opportunities and are less likely to speak or read a second language. People also tend to revert to speaking in their mother tongue in old age. Language barriers can leave these groups out of the loop. In the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, language was an obstacle to controlling the spread of the disease. An early shortage of information material for local language speakers and non-literate audiences left sections of the population in deadly ignorance, disproportionately affecting women.