health

Coronavirus Updates Slow to Reach NYC’s Non-Native English Speakers

The city’s Emergency Management system has been providing text message updates.
The city’s Emergency Management system has been providing text message updates. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Update: On Friday afternoon, NYC Emergency Management made COVID text-message alerts available in Spanish, by texting COVIDESP to 692-692, in addition to an existing English-language service.

To receive New York City coronavirus updates on your phone, text “COVID” to 692-692, advises the city agency responsible for helping New Yorkers before, during and after emergencies.

The result: a text message from NYC Emergency Management that reads, “COVID: You are now enrolled in Notify NYC. This system will provide you with important updates about the coronavirus in NYC.”

That text comes in English, with no other languages offered — although officials say an ad blitz in over 20 languages is in the works.

“The text messaging system should have options for updates in multiple languages,” Councilmember Carlos Menchaca (D-Brooklyn) told THE CITY.

The lack of language options underscores the need for a greater push by city officials to provide coronavirus updates to New Yorkers who speak languages other than English, said Menchaca, who chairs the City Council’s Committee on Immigration.

About 18% of New Yorkers do not speak English proficiently, according to the organization Literacy Partners.

Hundreds of languages are spoken in the city. Since 2017, Local Law 30 has required city agencies to provide access to their services in 10 languages other than English: Spanish, “Chinese,” Russian, Bengali, Haitian Creole, Korean, Arabic, Urdu, French and Polish.

Menchaca noted that the de Blasio administration has begun to address the concern, providing important information in several languages on a dedicated coronavirus website.

But, he added, that isn’t enough.

“Partly because immigrants do not have the same internet access as most New Yorkers, and partly because we know from oversight hearings that 311 has language access issues,” he said. “But mostly because direct outreach to immigrant New Yorkers is needed to overcome the distrust and fear the Trump administration has exacerbated.”

Spanish on the Way

A city Emergency Management Department spokesperson said the agency is “currently testing the capabilities/formatting” of a text option for Spanish.

“Once testing is complete, we will launch a Spanish code,” said the spokesperson, Omar Bourne.

The mayor’s office has convened a multiagency task force to translate health and safety materials into 22 languages as soon as possible.

“Facilitating language access is a crucial part of keeping all New Yorkers safe, which is why we are dedicated to ensuring all New Yorkers have the information they need in their primary language,” said Julia Arrendondo, a City Hall spokesperson.

Councilmember Carlos Menchaca (D-Brooklyn) wants emergency texts in more languages.
Councilmember Carlos Menchaca (D-Brooklyn) wants emergency texts in more languages. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

She didn’t say why texts weren’t available in languages other than English, but pointed out two Emergency Management-run Twitter accounts, @NNYCSpanish and @NNYCChinese.

Additionally, the city Health Department is planning to run ads in 23 languages on everything from subways to TV to radio to the Staten Island Ferry, giving advice on how to prevent the spread of germs.

“We are working as fast as possible to get that specific service available in other languages,” Arrendondo said, referring to the texting service.

‘Communication Gap’

Wayne Ho, head of the Chinese-American Planning Council (CPC), a nonprofit that provides social services to low-income and immigrant communities, said the city’s non-English speakers haven’t been receiving coronavirus updates as swiftly as their fellow New Yorkers.

“A lot of that information is not readily translated,” Ho told THE CITY, referring to materials from health officials at the local, state and federal levels.

“There’s a communication gap with, at least, New York’s immigrants,” he added.

At senior centers operated by CPC, Ho said, rumors and misinformation swirl, spawned by social media. Seniors and immigrants have strong networks of communication, spread by word of mouth, amplifying inaccurate information, he said.

“That’s just making it worse for them,” Ho said.

On Wednesday, at the CPC’s Open Door Senior Center in Manhattan’s Chinatown, a social worker spoke Mandarin into a microphone, giving the lunchtime crowd coronavirus updates. The updates were translated from local, state and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention materials.

Possible Solutions

Ho said that city officials need to communicate to immigrant communities through social media, but not only through Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

“A lot of Chinese have WeChat,” he said. “The Korean community has its own social media platform. They need a social media strategy to get information out there as soon as possible.”

Ho also said that officials should leverage their ties to community and business leaders in diverse parts of the city, as well as with the ethnic press, to bolster vital information.

Menchaca suggested the city should do more direct outreach, as his staff began doing earlier this week in Brooklyn. City agencies should visit schools, businesses and neighborhoods across the boroughs, as they have done previously for Census outreach, he said.

A spokesperson from the Department of Health said that direct outreach had been taking place, but didn’t specify when or where any of the outreach efforts had happened.

Menchaca’s spokesperson Anthony Chiarito said when staffers did outreach on 8th Avenue in Sunset Park, the heart of Brooklyn’s Chinatown, this week, they encountered people happy to receive in-person updates.

He noted that some business owners — who spoke limited English and whose sales were hurt by concerns of the virus — weren’t aware of the mayor’s offer to provide no-interest loans of up to $75,000 to struggling businesses.

That aid is advertised on the English-only text messaging service.

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