Communicating in the languages of affected people is a priority for the latest Ebola response plan, and beyond
On 2 March, the authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo announced that the last Ebola patient had been discharged from a treatment center. The epidemic isn’t over yet. But, after 18 months during which more than 3,400 people have been infected and over 2,250 died, the relief is palpable. Looking ahead, the Congolese government and its humanitarian partners turn their attention to implementing lessons from this 10th Ebola outbreak. In a country where more than 200 languages are spoken, prioritizing communication in the languages of affected people is one key lesson to help address the next emergency faster. The latest Ebola strategic response plan (SRP 4.1) points the way.
The languages of affected people are finally a priority
The plan highlights the importance of improving risk communication and community engagement by using the languages and the formats preferred by people at risk. This includes developing communication tools and feedback mechanisms in appropriate languages, formats, and channels. The plan also emphasizes the need to equip health communicators to relay accurate information in local languages and with culturally acceptable wording.
For the first time since the beginning of this outbreak, the SRP mentions these issues. This is a key advance in adopting insights highlighted by health professionals, anthropologists, and communication specialists. It addresses three key factors TWB identified as critical to the effectiveness of Ebola-related communication: the languages that responders use; the content that responders deliver; and the way responders deliver that content. It also acknowledges the importance of feedback gathered from affected people by linking it to follow-up actions. People continue to have concerns and questions around Ebola and response efforts. Their concerns must be heard and their questions answered as the current outbreak draws to a close.
This is an important lesson that matters beyond Ebola
In multilingual DRC, to help people protect themselves responders need to listen, understand, and provide information and services in the languages of those at risk. Improving communication cannot alone guarantee better outcomes. But unless language is built into risk communication and community engagement strategies, response teams are unlikely to be effective.
Recent actions by the risk communication and community engagement working group provide a case in point. Rumors and confusion have impeded efforts to contain the outbreak. So the group developed a multilingual tool to address the 25 most frequently asked questions. They collected the questions through the response-wide community feedback mechanism. The group members jointly drafted answers, and TWB supported with plain language editing to ensure accuracy and clarity. The group involved Ebola survivors to ensure the wording did not stigmatize them. Questions and answers were then translated into local languages for the widest possible reach and understanding. This tool equips responders to prevent the spread of misinformation and keep people safe.
Health professionals, social researchers, communication experts, and affected people worked together to provide and disseminate accurate, understandable information. This should be standard practice in mitigating the consequences of this outbreak, preparing for future health emergencies, and addressing wider humanitarian needs.
It is high time to turn evidence into action
The Congolese government and its humanitarian partners have a crucial role to play in implementing the latest response plan. And it seems they finally intend to give affected people’s languages and communication preferences the attention they deserve. TWB will work closely with those who are committed to a more language-aware approach. By proactively developing field teams’ capacity and resources, we can lift the language barriers to effective and accountable risk communication and community engagement.
Written by Mia Marzotto, Senior Advocacy Officer and Laure Venier, Community Engagement Program Coordinator for DRC, Translators without Borders.