The way in which information is transmitted can have a great impact on society, economy, and politics.
In times of a pandemic disease like COVID-19, the media is flooded with information coming in from different sources and places, and in different languages. How this sensitive information is translated can lead to panic, social stigma or health issues.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is also conscious about the effects of communication for preparedness and response to the coronavirus disease. So much so that they provide a great variety of material on this matter, from a general communication guide to specific workplace communication guides. (https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/technical-guidance/risk-communication-and-community-engagement)
The virus is an “enemy” that does not come alone, its two henchmen are fear and discrimination.
Fear is as contagious as the virus, it only takes one word to topple the tile and see the domino effect. A clear example is the shortage of toilet paper in some countries. People understood a strict quarantine was going to be implemented leading to a huge demand for toilet paper.
A pandemic disease can also cause social stigma and discriminatory behavior against people who are perceived to be related to the disease. The terms chosen to describe the outbreak, its origins, and prevention measures can reinforce or reduce the stigma. The WHO advises using “acquiring” or “contract” instead of “infect” or “transmit” because this second group of terms implies blame. The socially stigmatized may hide their symptoms and avoid seeking health care immediately.
Then, we have the virus itself. Precision is essential in translating health content related to COVID-19. Any irregularity can destroy a whole country’s prevention and response plan. Let’s take for example a pamphlet that says “People with fever, cough and difficulty breathing should seek medical attention”. If this sentence were translated into Spanish as Las personas que tengan fiebre, tos o dificultad para respirar deben buscar atención médica (People with fever, cough or difficulty breathing should seek medical attention), healthcare facilities would be packed with false and actual COVID-19 cases, resulting in the overwhelming of the health system. Precise information allows people to act wisely.
As the WHO says “People have the right to be informed about and understand the health risks that they and their loved ones face”. As translators we can do their part in this world crisis by translating life-saving information accurately. For the first time in many years, we are all in this together.