Community response: India’s COVID-19 crisis

Community response: India’s COVID-19 Crisis

Translators improve lives by translating lifesaving information for people who speak marginalized languages. Those who volunteer as part of the Translators without Borders (TWB) community have a range of experiences and skills. They share our vision of a world where knowledge knows no language barriers. We are grateful for all our translators, and we love sharing their stories.

Health, gender, equity, emergency 

At each stage of the COVID-19 crisis, our community responded with vital translations, voiceovers, and captions in the languages people understand. Over 190 million cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed worldwide, and 32,737,939 of these are in India at the time of publication. There, the world watched India battle an oxygen shortage in tandem with a surge of infections. We translated vital information to help keep people safe from the virus. Now, a vaccination drive is underway to inoculate the population. But experts are concerned about a gender gap, as “government data shows 6% fewer women are getting vaccinated.” This is especially problematic in rural India where there is less internet access and more hesitation or fear around the vaccine, especially among women. 

“I feel translation makes a huge difference since even in India, many people from remote areas could not initially access the COVID health and vaccination resources made available by the government, either because of not having the means or not being able to use the English platform due to a language barrier.”

Chinmay Rastogi, TWB Hindi Language Associate

This is where our language community jumps into action. Collectively, we’re working towards a goal of more equitable access to information, irrespective of our language. We interviewed Chinmay Rastogi, our Hindi Language Associate, as well as Ashutosh Mitra and Poonam Tomar, members of our dedicated Hindi language community. They all donate their time and skills to support our mission. For the people of India, this means providing accurate, timely information about the pandemic as it evolves. It also means ensuring people can ask the questions that matter to them and get answers in their language. 

TWB Hindi Language Associate, Chinmay. India's COVID-19 crisis
Ashutosh, Hindi translator 

Ashutosh, Hindi translator 

  • Inspired by Hindu philosophy
  • Keeps his TWB T-shirt proudly in his wardrobe
  • 700,000 words donated

Chinmay, Hindi language associate

  • Helps lead the Hindi language community
  • Joined in the midst of the pandemic
  • 72,000 words donated

Poonam, Hindi translator 

  • Lives in Singapore 
  • Passionate about learning new things
  • 17,000 words donated

Novel virus, new words. 

Chinmay joined TWB during the chaos of the pandemic. He was quickly thrown into COVID-19 training and education projects to ensure that healthcare workers in the community can properly communicate with people about the virus. “Social distancing,” “quarantine,” “isolation,” and countless other new terms have been coined in English and other languages to describe how we’ve dealt with the virus. These terms, used by the World Health Organization, for example, have to be taken on board by people all over the world, no matter what language they speak. There was no English to Hindi dictionary for these new terms and new ways of using them. So Chinmay and his fellow translators have joined the effort to translate numerous resources to inform and support people, in their languages. It’s the job of our linguists and Language Associates to work out the best way to translate unfamiliar terms and make resources accessible to all our language communities in new and strange circumstances. One such resource is the Hindi Style Guide which Chinmay recently helped create for TWB translators. It illustrates the basic principles for translating TWB projects into Hindi. Chinmay said “it’s challenging but really exciting to work towards this end since it could really have a positive impact on someone’s life. Even as digitization continues to propel itself into lives all over the world, many resources are not “accessible” despite being “available” because of a language barrier. The idea of being able to bridge this gap appeals to me.” 

“It has been interesting to follow how new words and terms are absorbed into a language.”

Chinmay, TWB Hindi Language Associate.

Many languages, one cause 

TWB linguists are motivated to come together in support of their communities. Poonam says, “The COVID situation has taught me how vital it is to have a translated version of important guidelines in your own native language. Being a linguist, I wanted to give back to the community to spread awareness in such critical times.”

“Through TWB, I am trying to help bridge the gap for all native speakers of Hindi who are unable to read and understand foreign languages.”

Poonam, Hindi translator for TWB
Poonam working on a COVID-19 project in Hindi. India's COVID-19 crisis
Poonam working on a COVID-19 project in Hindi

For Ashutosh, the philosophy of Hinduism is what motivates him. He explains: “वसुधैव कुटुम्बकम {vasudhaiv kuTumbakam} means ‘Vasudha’ (earth) + eva (one and only) + Kutumbakam (family). This statement enjoins humans to exhibit the highest sense of affinity and leave all the differences such as caste, color, ethnicity, nationality, and religion aside. And when you follow this philosophy you share what you have within your family, irrespective of age and relation. And this is what I do when I volunteer for TWB. And this is what keeps motivating me.” 

Ashutosh is inspired by the “Karma” philosophy of Bhagavad Gita, which speaks about volunteering:

कर्मण्येवाधिकारस्ते मा फलेषु कदाचन।

मा कर्मफलहेतुर्भूर्मा ते सङ्गोऽस्त्वकर्मणि।


He translates this to English as – “Let your claim lie on action alone and never on the fruits; you should never be a cause for the fruits of action; let not your attachment be to inaction.”

Learning together

Poonam says she generally spends her evenings and weekends volunteering for TWB. She is grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the COVID-19 Digital Classroom. This is a library of resources for community-based health workers made multilingual in collaboration with TWB’s community of linguists. By making learning available to the Hindi-speaking community, everyone involved has played a part in actively slowing the spread of COVID-19 and saving lives. 

The opportunity for mutual understanding and learning through translation is a rewarding experience for all of our volunteers. Chinmay appreciates that “With TWB, the huge breadth of projects means you never have to limit yourself. It’s also fascinating to see how technology is being used here to actually make our world a better place by creating tools and services in languages that people are familiar with.” 

Many of the TWB community describe it as family. We’re proud to offer opportunities to connect and give back together, and would like to extend our invitation to join us! We’re growing our Hindi-speaking community so we can respond to more humanitarian needs.

Commencing September 27, 2021, we’ll be marking Hindi Language Week – it’s a chance to celebrate our Hindi-speaking community with online webinars, translation contests, and more.

Join the effort, spread the word to Hindi speakers, and support TWB to share vital information and make people heard in their language. 

Written by Danielle Moore, Communications and Engagement Officer for TWB, part of CLEAR Global. Interview responses by Chinmay Rastogi, Volunteer Hindi Language Associate for TWB, Ashutosh Mitra, Translator for TWB, and Poonam Tomar, Translator for TWB. 

Sifat Noor: treading undiscovered paths

Translators improve lives by translating lifesaving information for people who speak marginalized languages. Those who volunteer as part of the Translators without Borders (TWB) community have a range of experiences and skills. They share our vision of a world where knowledge knows no language barriers. We are grateful for all our translators, and we love sharing their stories.

On World Humanitarian Day 2020, TWB translator Sifat Noor was featured among four Bangla “humanitarian heroes.” He was hailed for his contribution “in translating critical, potentially life-saving information into Bangla, so more people have the information they need to lead safe, healthy, and informed lives.” 

In his short time with the TWB community, Sifat has worked for organizations such as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the American Red Cross, the World Health Organization, and the United Nations Refugee Agency. His projects focus on education, cancer awareness, and healthcare. More recently he has translated COVID-19 information to inform Bangla speakers about the pandemic. Yet for Sifat, 2020 has been somewhat of a whirlwind. He only began volunteering in March 2020. Almost unbelievably, this was his first foray into the industry.

Sifat loves to share knowledge

“I learned about the greatest linguist in history, Kató Lomb. A polyglot, who graduated in physics and chemistry, learned about 25 languages, and could work with 16 of them! TWB honored this noble woman and I was impressed to see such thoughtfulness. I couldn’t think of a better name, ‘Kató Platform,’ for our workspace.”

Part of the community

Sifat already thrives on being part of the TWB community: 

“Although I’ve never seen or met anyone in person, I always have this notion that I have good friends in different countries. TWB has a wonderful team that gives the volunteers a sense of belonging.” 

Sifat Noor.

Each of our 30,000 linguists belongs to a network which benefits from opportunities to explore the industry, develop new skills, and build confidence in translation.

The 2020 Community Survey asked TWB translators where in the world they are. Explore the survey results here

New ways of work in 2020

Sifat has worked through the drastic and surprising global impacts of COVID-19. Individuals have lost jobs, classes have stopped, and we are all familiarizing ourselves with the “new normal.” The wake of the outbreak has often meant not being able to participate in activities in person, so Sifat has embraced the opportunity to volunteer remotely to reach people in need. The challenges of 2020 and his excellent grasp of English and Bangla pushed him towards an undiscovered interest in translation. Despite not having explored an interest in translation before, he’s always been an enthusiastic writer and language lover who wanted to do good for others, making this the perfect role for him. In our interview, Sifat expressed his ardent belief in seeking out new experiences: “Through volunteering I am exploring this field, learning new techniques, honing my language skills and helping people… all at the same time!”

“We all can contribute to humanity.”

“I wish [the translation platform] would work better on smartphones!” says Sifat, explaining how seriously he takes his volunteering duties. He carves out time and space in his daily life, before and after work. 

2020 presented us the biggest language challenge in history, and Sifat is proud to have played a part. We explored some of his most fascinating projects: 

“TWB has given me access to many projects that are vital for humanity. I found translating the International Security and Development Center’s survey questions fascinating, I loved the way they organized the opinion polls and it was apparent that the outcomes would propose some life-changing solutions. I also want to mention RCoA, World BEYOND War, and of course, the works of the COVID Infographics Team.” Infographics like these have been key this year, to share vital information in a digestible and understandable format. Ultimately, these projects help more people keep safe, healthy and informed in the pandemic.

Some parting words from Sifat – lessons learned from others in our community:

“It may look like some simple translation, but we all are working for people. Although our works are seldom visible, you never know whose lives you’re improving, or even saving.”

Sifat Noor

For that reason, we thank you all for your commitment as always, through 2021 and beyond.

Written by Danielle Moore, Communications Officer for TWB. With interview responses by Sifat Noor, Volunteer Translator for TWB.

Community translation supports the COVID-19 response

Translators play a key role in slowing the spread and supporting people through the pandemic. So much so that the theme of International Translation Day, 2020 is “Finding the words for a world in crisis.” COVID-19 has without question put the spotlight on the need for language support during a crisis.

For International Translation Day 2020, we’re celebrating our translator community. Like many organizations, Translators without Borders and the translators who work with us have had to pivot to keep up with rapidly changing expectations. The need to overcome language barriers in providing public health information has never been clearer. Our translators have been at the forefront of providing accurate, clear, and consistent information to people who need it, in a language they understand.

This year, our translators’ contributions are supporting more people than ever through an unprecedented crisis of information.

Our community of 30,000 translators has come together to translate critical public-facing content into languages and formats that more people can understand. Since January, we’ve translated 4.8 million words in 101 languages for the COVID-19 response

For this very special International Translations Day, we interviewed two translators who are dedicating time to COVID-19 projects.

First and foremost, our community is made up of individuals with immense motivation to do good with their translation skills. Like most of us, they are living through times of intense change and readjustment, while finding time to volunteer. So today, on International Translation Day 2020, learn more about these two translators: 

Barbara Pissane, based in Lyon, France

  • Green-tea drinker and dark-chocolate lover
  • Proud recipient of two French RPL (Recognition of Prior Learning) diplomas 
  • Interested in international relations, ethics, refugees, human rights, and medical devices
Barbara Pissane standing in a city street.

“I love discovering new subjects and working with people from all around the world.”

Barbara Pissane

Maria Paula Gorgone, an Argentinian living in Norway 

  • Committed translator
  • Works from home and is adjusting to “the new normal”
  • Has met some amazing people through TWB who she is now “lucky to call friends”
Maria Paula Gorgone sits on top of a hill after a hike.

“I believe that information is a right and everyone should have access to it. The organizations that we get to support through TWB aid people who are in situations where lack of information or misunderstandings can have serious consequences. No one should be left aside because of a language barrier, and I just hope that by volunteering my skills I can do a small part to help break these barriers.”

Maria Paula Gorgone

Barbara and Maria Paula are long-time supporters of Translators without Borders, and now volunteers to review translation tests for French and Spanish. As well as translating tasks, they help us verify new translators, which directly improves the quality of TWB’s projects. Here are some of their major contributions as TWB translators:

Barbara Pissane: translator

Maria Paula Gorgone: translator

  • English to Spanish translator and reviser
  • Revised 57,000 words for COVID-19 projects
  • Translated nearly 500,000 words since starting at TWB

Right now, translation work for COVID-19 is especially relevant, and significant for many. Barbara and Maria Paula have worked on the following projects for various nonprofit partners in the past few months.

Barbara Pissane: COVID-19 contributor

Core Group Consortium: This COVID-19 Library offers health workers and trainers access to quality assured, openly licensed content that can be used on mobile devices and shared amongst communities.

Partners in Health: Translations included work on COVID-19 patient management for medical staff with a focus on health issues for poor and marginalized people. The information included how to initially assess a patient with the coronavirus, oxygen management, management of organ failure, COVID-19 triage and screening. Barbara also revised the “COVID-19 Guide: Clinical Management of COVID-19,” a document used across many countries as a guide for community and clinical management of the disease.

H2H Network: Barbara revised several COVID-19 H2H Network resources for a joint project with TWB, to provide robust evidence on the prevention and treatment of COVID-19. 

WHO: Barbara translated an online course for “Emerging respiratory viruses, including nCoV: methods for detection, prevention, response and control,” available on OpenWHO online. You can access the course here.

Maria Paula Gorgone: COVID-19 contributor

ACAPS: Maria Paula revised a task for ACAPS, a nonprofit, independent information provider. The project focused on Mexico: migration and COVID-19, a report that provides an overview how the spread of COVID-19 has led to a deteriorating situation for migrants in Mexico. It primarily focuses on how the pandemic has provided an opportunity for US immigration policy to become even more stringent.

Partners in Health: Maria Paula revised an online resource titled “COVID-19 Disproportionately Impacts Immigrants in Massachusetts.” This story is about the work of the Massachusetts Community Tracing Collaborative (COVID-19 contact tracing initiative) and how contact tracers are working with immigrant communities. 

War Child: Maria Paula worked on a subtitling project, Child Safeguarding during the COVID-19 response. She also revised the Child Protection Case Management guide for development or humanitarian settings. It is a way of organizing and carrying out work to address children’s and families’ needs in an appropriate, systematic and timely manner.

MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières or Doctors without Borders): This translated document, on “Emergency and Basic Critical Care for COVID-19 in Resource-Limited Settings” provides clinical guidance for COVID-19 patient care in MSF’s existing field projects in resource-limited settings.

WHO: Maria Paula joined fellow translators to work on an online course on emerging respiratory viruses. The training materials on respiratory diseases and critical care for the WHO stood out as an impactful project for her:

“I remember working on this task very early on the pandemic, at a time where everything was a bit confusing and there was a lot of misinformation going around. It was a great feeling knowing I was doing my small part to fight misinformation.”

Maria Paula Gorgone

Thank you to all of the translators who directly contribute words in this crisis, and the partners and supporters who facilitate this vital work. To join our unique community, click here.

Written by Ambra Sottile, Senior Community Officer, and Danielle Moore, Communications Officer for TWB.

Conversations with chatbots: helping people in the DRC access multilingual COVID-19 information

“How is coronavirus different from Ebola?”

“What are the symptoms of Corona?”

“How many times a day should I wash my hands?”

“How else can I protect myself from Corona?”

These are questions that people are asking in the Democratic Republic of Congo in Lingala, French, and Congolese Swahili. And their questions are being answered by a bot, in their own language.

The bot’s name is “Uji,” which is short for ukingo and jibu, which mean “prevention” and “response” respectively. Uji is TWB’s first multilingual chatbot and a key part of making sure people have the health information they want, in their own language.

Uji supports collaborative and two-way communication

Everyone has the right to access the information they need and want, when they want it, and in a language they understand. Yet frequently information is only available in global commercially-viable languages, or in the national languages of a country. Furthermore, this information is often only available in a top-down manner, with humanitarians and health agencies deciding what information people can and should receive.

TWB has long advocated for humanitarians and development professionals to integrate multilingual technology in their programs. This allows people living through crises to proactively and independently get answers to their questions. And with the COVID-19 pandemic related restrictions denying crisis-affected people access to humanitarians, new communication tools are needed.

Uji unites language and technology to bring us closer to this vision of truly equitable information access.

The development of Uji

Access to credible, multilingual COVID-19 information is a challenge in the DRC. “Many Lingala and Congolese Swahili speakers in the DRC are accessing COVID-19 information from different radio shows, websites, and posters,” explains Rodrigue Bashizi, TWB’s DRC Community Engagement Officer. “But the main challenge for accessing COVID-19 information is the cost of internet bundles in the country. Sometimes people receive videos talking about COVID-19, but they can’t open them due to a lack of good internet and the cost of bundles.”

People needed a better solution for their COVID-19 questions. Enter Uji. Rodrigue says, “Uji is a very important tool for people in DRC because they lack trusted information. Since Uji is on Telegram and WhatsApp, it will not consume a lot of internet bundles. It is easy to use. Once it is on SMS it will even be available for people in remote areas with no internet access.”

Rodrigue is from Bukavu in the DRC and speaks Swahili, French, English, Lingala, Kinyarwanda and Luganda. Before joining TWB, he worked as a trainer with refugees in Uganda. At TWB, he is a core member of the team developing our multilingual chatbots for two-way communications. Rodrigue is passionate about technology and says he loves working on chatbots, as he is learning something new every day.

Rodrigue and other TWB team members developed the tool in partnership with Kinshasa Digital, a DRC communication agency that was already working with the DRC Ministry of Health to develop a COVID-19 chatbot. By collaborating with Kinshasa Digital and bringing multilingual technology to the existing bot, we will be able to reach more people, in more languages.

TWB developed Uji in French, Congolese Swahili, and Lingala. The bot responds to a wide range of questions about COVID-19, from debunking popular rumors, to tips on how to help children cope with stress due to COVID-19. We are working on expanding its scope to also respond to questions about Ebola. The chatbot is available on WhatsApp and Telegram. By using existing messaging platforms people can access COVID-19 information wherever they are, whenever they want. Whether they are at home, on the bus, or at work, they can find the information they need, right from their phone.

To engage with Uji, users message their COVID-19 questions to the chatbot on WhatsApp or Telegram. They can ask their questions in French, Congolese Swahili, or Lingala. The bot automatically responds in the language in which the question was asked.

The questions were ready and the bot was developed. But before launching the bot fully across these platforms, we needed to test and perfect it.

Linguist-tested and approved

Uji is a work in progress, and it requires human testing in multiple languages to make sure it’s effective and useful. Rodrigue led the testing efforts with volunteers from TWB’s community of translators, IFRC, and other partners. At the beginning of the process, Uji had to learn to understand questions and match responses accurately. But with time and testing, Uji has improved dramatically. And feedback from our community of testers is positive:

“The bot is making great progress in Swahili.”

“It’s getting harder to get an answer that doesn’t match the question. Seems the bot is improving continuously.”

Not only is this individual feedback important, but nearly 70% of users who participated in our satisfaction survey about the bot report that they find the information useful. The chatbot also allows TWB to gather insights about what questions are asked most frequently and what languages are used most often. Humanitarian and health organizations can use this data to tailor their communication strategies, to better provide the information that people want.

We will continue to improve Uji in the coming weeks and months, and welcome additional feedback from users.

The future of TWB chatbots

We hope that Uji is the start of a global restructuring of how multilingual conversations happen. Our aim is to demonstrate Uji’s value as a successful multilingual two-way communication channel in the DRC, and then expand the model into additional countries and for additional uses.

We encourage humanitarian and development professionals to consider incorporating chatbots and other language technology into their programming.

To learn more about incorporating chatbot and language technology into your programming, email [email protected].

Written by Krissy Welle, TWB’s Senior Communications Officer

COVID-19 rumors highlight the need for facts  

Disseminating clear, accurate and accessible information in a language that people understand is critical to tackling misinformation and slowing the spread of COVID-19. The UN Secretary-General António Guterres highlighted that alongside the virus itself the world faces a “dangerous epidemic of misinformation.”

Misinformation fills the spaces left when people’s voices aren’t heard and their questions aren’t answered. 

Monitoring social media and other discussion platforms are important ways to understand people’s concerns and identify the false information circulating. Health officials and humanitarian organizations involved in the response need to invest in multilingual fact-checking to ensure people have access to the information they need and want. Translators without Borders has partnered with Internews to monitor social media channels in Simplified Chinese, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Indonesian and Urdu to identify trending misinformation. Here is what we are hearing, how it relates to lessons from past outbreaks, and what responders should do about it.

What are we hearing? 

Our monitoring reveals that people are looking for answers and wide-ranging rumors are abundant. Questions such as “Can mosquitoes transmit COVID-19?”, “Can the virus survive in hot weather?”, or “Are people with Type A blood more likely to catch COVID-19?” are common across language groups. Often these questions are left unanswered or answered only with speculation from other social media users. 

The most persistent rumors we hear are around ways to avoid catching the virus. Eating garlic, ginger, eggs, pepper or bananas, taking Vitamin D, drinking local herbal infusions, or gargling with salt water are just some of the preventive measures circulating. None of them is true. Trending posts containing inaccurate information about supposed cures often misrepresent it as recommendations from “health experts.” Some incorrect information and advice has been wrongly attributed to organizations like UNICEF. 

Some proposed “cures” have negative consequences, like those that encourage excessive alcohol, smoking or taking various medications. In extreme cases, misinformed posts have had life-threatening consequences. Another recurrent dangerous theme is fear of people who have contracted COVID-19. This escalates sometimes to posts inciting violence against sick people to stop the spread. 

Our team has heard rumors which link mosquito bites to COVID-19. To date, there has no been evidence to suggest that the virus could be spread by mosquitoes. See the WHO myth-busting page for more information.

Simple and accessible formats work 

Our work shows that the rumors that spread quickly are often very simple and use words or images that are easily accessible. Memes and messages including video or audio have greater potential to go viral, whether they contain factual information or not. These formats are easily shareable and digestible by all audiences. 

This is a stark reminder that both language and format matter to ensure fact-checked information reaches everyone, including the most vulnerable and non-literate individuals. 

Lessons from past outbreaks apply 

The problem of misinformation in public health emergencies isn’t new. Lessons from the most recent Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo provide insight into its impact and how to address it. TWB found that people wanted answers to their questions about the disease, not just general instructions. Without up-to-date information in plain and accessible languages and formats, people wondered if they were being told the truth, and rumors persisted. The use of technical terms and concepts that were not consistently or clearly translated and explained in local languages created further confusion, frustration, and fear. Several people told us they did not seek treatment for fear of misunderstanding or being misunderstood – and being misdiagnosed with the disease as a result. Health communicators often lacked detailed knowledge of the latest developments to calm people’s fears and address questions. 

This contributed to an environment of distrust between responders and community members. While the Ebola outbreak is not yet over, concerted efforts to address communities’ concerns and counter misinformation in their languages has played a crucial role in controlling it.  

Trust in the source is linked to whether a message is believed  

Trust in the source is an important determinant of whether a message is believed. When information is delivered by a trusted friend or family member, or via a trusted news source or local authority, it is more likely to be believed. Our recent research in Bangladesh confirms that people often prefer to receive information about COVID-19 from these trusted sources. This lesson should be leveraged in rumor-countering strategies.   

What should COVID-19 responders do? 

 Rumors about COVID-19 are circulating widely, repeated across multiple media and in multiple languages. Ignoring or dismissing them isn’t wise, even if some may seem less influential. These rumors will persist unless people have the information they want. Health officials and organizations involved in the response can ensure people have access to timely and factual information that they can understand. Here are three key actions responders must take: 

1. Understand people’s questions and concerns.

That means not just giving them information, but listening to them. Monitor social media and other discussion platforms to understand what information people need and want, especially where expert information on COVID-19 is not available in their languages. Language technology such as natural language processing, machine translation, and automated keyword tracking make this possible at scale, even for marginalized languages.

2. Develop rumor-countering messaging based on people’s questions and concerns.

That messaging should be multilingual, accessible, and actionable. Don’t stick to communication only in the official or dominant languages; instead, translate key messages and materials into the languages people understand. And consider people’s literacy levels and intellectual and physical impairments: audio and audiovisual formats can increase the reach of key messages. Avoid jargon or technical terms that many people won’t understand; instead, use simple words that engage with people’s concerns and don’t stigmatize. Develop messaging that makes the situation feel manageable, with advice that is relevant to people’s specific situations. 

For example, WHO is developing pictorial myth-busting postcards, and IFRC publishes a weekly factsheet to dispel popular rumors. Such resources are urgently needed in a wider range of languages and in formats that people can easily share through different channels. 

3. Partner with trusted, local influencers.

Community leaders, religious leaders, health workers, and local media outlets can amplify dissemination and engagement efforts. Involving them will increase the uptake of key messages in relevant languages and formats.


Here are some useful resources: Internews: rumor tracking methodology and CDAC: Rumour has it: guidance on working with rumours

For more information on TWB’s COVID-19 language services, please contact us at [email protected].

Written by Manmeet Kaur, COVID-19 Response Lead, and Mia Marzotto, Senior Advocacy Officer for Translators without Borders

This project is funded by the H2H Fund, a funding mechanism for H2H Network members. The fund is a rapid funding vehicle for network members responding to humanitarian crises.


Countries with lower literacy levels need different COVID-19 communication strategies

People have a right to access the information they need during the COVID-19 pandemic. But the format and language of that information need to evolve as COVID-19 spreads to nations with lower literacy rates and more vulnerable groups of people.

covid-19 literacy rates communication strategies

The information should be easy for people to find, understand and use. It’s unwise to assume that written formats are always the most efficient way to convey information. As the disease rapidly expands into countries with lower rates of literacy, organizations involved in the response need to shift focus from written information to developing significantly more pictorial, audio, and video content. 

That is the best way to ensure that older people, women, and other vulnerable people in those countries have the best chance of understanding lifesaving information. 

It’s also a necessary adjustment where infection control limits in-person community engagement. Social media, SMS services, call centers, television, and radio will be essential communication channels. Formats need to diversify accordingly if the message is to get across.

Literacy dynamics are rapidly changing

COVID-19 is now rapidly spreading in countries with lower literacy rates. The average literacy rate in countries with confirmed COVID-19 cases on February 19 was 94%. One month later it was 89%.

The highest rates of change in new COVID-19 cases being recorded are predominantly in countries with lower literacy rates. Between March 16 and 22, the 15 countries with the highest percentage change of new COVID-19 cases had an average literacy rate of 85%. These include countries like Cambodia, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, DRC, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Togo. All these countries saw increases in confirmed cases of at least 900% during this seven-day period.

Women’s literacy rates are often lower than men’s

In countries where UNESCO measures literacy, average literacy rates are 6% higher for men than for women. For example in Yemen, 73% of men and only 35% of women above the age of 15 can read or write a basic sentence about their life, a difference of 38%. The gender difference is also stark in Pakistan (25%), DRC (23%) and Mali (20%). 

The map below highlights the gender difference in adult literacy in individual countries. Orange shading indicates countries where male literacy rates are higher than female literacy rates. Blue shading indicates the few countries where female literacy rates are higher than male literacy rates. 

Older people often have lower literacy rates than people under 65 

In many countries, older people are less likely to be able to read than younger adults. This limits their ability to access written information on COVID-19.

The average elderly literacy rate in countries UNESCO reports literacy data for, is 65%. UNESCO defines elderly people as those aged 65 or older. In countries with documented literacy rates from the same year, people aged between 15 and 64 have an average literacy rate 19% higher than people 65 years or older. The difference is greatest in Libya (63%), Timor-Leste (53%), Cabo Verde (50%), and Iran (49%).

Use data to design more inclusive communication strategies

To design effective COVID-19 communication strategies, responders need reliable data about language and literacy. As part of our COVID-19 response, we are making the necessary data openly available.

This is part of a Translators without Borders initiative to help make targeted information strategies more data driven. Language and literacy maps and datasets exist for DRC, Guatemala, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Ukraine, and Zambia. 

Along with these existing maps and the interactive global literacy map above, we are also scaling up our efforts to release more subnational language and literacy data for countries affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. This week we released national and sub-national data for Thailand. We will release more datasets and data visualizations over the next few weeks and months, so stay tuned to our COVID-19 webpage or the Humanitarian Data Exchange for updates.

We derived most of those datasets from historical census data, typically available down to the Admin 2 (district or county) level. Such data is most useful when it is analyzed alongside up-to-date information on language and communication needs. To help us with our ongoing language data initiative, we urge organizations to include four simple language questions in needs assessments and surveys related to COVID-19.

Make content available in multiple formats

Organizations responding to the pandemic should use improved data to develop communication strategies that are geared to the needs of the target population. Preparedness is a critical component of this. Organizations should develop content in as many formats as possible, recognizing that pictorial, audio, and video content is easier to access and absorb for many people. Additionally, older people often benefit from content that is easier to read. This requires incorporating design considerations such as larger fonts and good contrast. Plain-language principles also offer a useful model for creating clear and concise written and verbal content. The WHO proposes several key principles for improving understanding of health content.

In the rapidly evolving context of the COVID-19 response, organizations should complement written information with other formats. This is vital to ensure information is both believed and understood. We need to do this early to ensure people living in places with lower literacy levels don’t receive information too late to make a difference. 

Written by Eric DeLuca, Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning Manager, Translators without Borders

The project is funded by the H2H Fund, a funding mechanism for H2H Network members. The fund is a rapid funding vehicle for network members responding to humanitarian crises.

uk aid logo H2H logo