Medical student working to translate COVID-19 information into 37 languages to help non-English speakers

Coronavirus outbreak: What you need to know

BOSTON — What we know about the coronavirus is evolving every day, so imagine if you didn’t have access to information to keep you safe. One Harvard Medical School student is working with a team to translate state and federal recommendations in 37 languages to help spread that potentially lifesaving information.

“We cannot continue short-changing non-English speakers,” said Pooja Chandrashekar of the COVID-19 Health Literacy Project. “We know from past epidemics like the swine flu that the lack of health information actually put these groups, which are an already vulnerable group, at a higher risk of infection.”

Chandrashekar, a first-year Harvard Medical School student, started the project. She and a national coalition of over 150 medical students create and translate coronavirus information in 37 languages.

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“It’s really about meeting the communities where they are and making sure that they are delivering the information to them in their own native language in a manner that’s accessible and understandable to them,” Chandrashekar said.

Chandrashekar has teamed up with dozens of advocacy groups to disseminate the translated materials, including Boston’s “The Family Van.” It’s a mobile health clinic serving the city’s neighborhoods with the largest prevalence of preventable disease.

Dr. Nancy Oriol, Harvard professor and lecturer on global health and social medicine, founded “The Family Van” and is working with Chandrashekar on the project.

“We know that people in the Latinx and the African American communities and inner-city communities and poor communities have less access to health insurance (and) health care,” Dr. Oriol said.

Having coronavirus information in all languages is more important now than ever before. State and federal public health officials say African Americans and members of the Latinx communities are dying from the virus more than any other group.

Dr. Brittany Bankhead-Kendall says she’s seen a recent spike of Latinx patients in the ICU at Massachusetts General Hospital.

“We've seen socio-economic discrepancies in patients who live in a home with multigenerational family members and we're seeing some bad effects from that,” Dr. Bankhead-Kendall said.

Obesity medicine specialist Dr. Fatima Cody Stanford points to other risk factors that disproportionately affect people of color.

“What we do believe is inflammatory markers that are associated with obesity predispose you to having worse outcomes,” she said.

Stanford is joining the call for better coronavirus race and ethnicity tracking.

“On a call last night with the president and board of trustee chair for the board of the American Medical Association, I advocated along with others for better, clearer data on a national level,” she said. “So we need to do better.”

The Harvard University campus is shown on March 23, 2020 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The Harvard University campus is shown on March 23, 2020 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)