Partners in Recovery – Why Language Access Plays a Key Role in Toronto’s Recovery!

by: Latha Sukumar, Executive Director

We at MCIS have offered our support for professional language services to the City of Toronto’s Partners in Recovery process. We believe it can serve as a targeted initiative that addresses the real issues and challenges that residents of our City and the agencies that serve them will face, as soon we come out of lockdown.

As a non-profit social enterprise located in Toronto for the past thirty years, MCIS has helped Limited English and French Speakers (LE/FS) access services within the broader public sector across Canada with qualified interpreters and translators in over 300 languages. Every year, MCIS provides interpretation and translation services for several hundred thousand individuals across Canada, all who need access to critical information and services.

During this time of unprecedented suffering in our City and the world, brought on by COVID-19, we are delivering hundreds of hours of interpreting services to hospitals, school boards, emergency first responders, shelters, children’s aid societies, Worker’s Safety and Insurance Board and hundreds of public sector organizations across Canada. We are also translating several thousand words of COVID-19 related material. We have learned, both anecdotally and through various reports coming out of other jurisdictions, that the LE/FS are likely to be the most vulnerable to the risk of infection, and therefore the weakest link in our fight against this virus. These individuals are overrepresented in the services sector where employment is precarious with limited or no benefits. They are, therefore, more likely to live in overcrowded, impoverished neighbourhoods and to present more underlying health conditions relative to the general population. It goes without saying that if they are denied adequate health information, these health disparities will be further compounded. Under current circumstances, this could mean the resurgence and spread of COVID-19 in our City and the resultant strain on our economy as a whole. This would further mean an abnegation of the City’s commitment to Access and Equity where people without access to the right information are at greater risk of falling sick and of not being able to rebuild lives ravaged by the economic devastation that the virus has left in its trail.

In light of all of the above, we have asked the City to engage with agencies like MCIS Language Solutions as their Partner in Recovery so we can provide guidance with respect to the following:

  • On the importance of, and the means by which, health and other data, that is collected by public health and other government agencies, include language access, race and ethnicity;
  • Why public health, income support and all other local services must be  planned and delivered, placing language access front and centre;
  • That innovative channels be used for just-in-time delivery of relevant health, income support and other information to all sections of the population in varied and accessible formats;
  • Why and how agencies that have expertise serving diverse populations could be engaged to identify key entry points and map out decision trees to ensure the City delivers critical information and services in the most cost efficient and effective ways.

We have suggestions for specific things the City can do now.

During the current COVID-19 crisis, cities around the world have tried various tactics, some of which our City could easily, and immediately, adopt:

  • Develop interagency task forces or use existing ones such as the Shelter Support and Housing Agency coalition, which consists of representatives from across all sectors addressing poverty and homelessness and immigrant issues, to come up with a framework for the planning and dissemination of information to our City’s most vulnerable, multilingual populations;
  • Use technology in the form of text/WhatsApp message alerts, and social media to deliver region-specific guidance in the primary languages of those regions;
  • Proactively work with local community agencies, and local and ethnic media outlets to disseminate credible and accurate information in mother tongue languages; the use of audio-visual public service announcements can be very powerful;
  • Engage community health workers who speak several languages to do direct, on-the-ground outreach, or provide these workers access to live over-the-phone interpretation;
  • Where it is outside the direct jurisdiction of the City, the City could advocate for the appropriate level of government to mandate the immediate drafting of health legislation and policy, where language access is placed front and centre, bolstered with the allocation of appropriate resources.

Call to action to agencies and the general public

This year, for the first time in history, Toronto declared a citywide State of Emergency having the City’s Emergency Operations Centre mobilized, to date, for 56 days. This week, May 3 to 9, the City not only celebrates the 25th anniversary of Emergency Preparedness Week, but also recognizes the significance of access to mental health services (May 3 to 9, Mental Health Week) helping citizens to overcome pandemic challenges.

Here are some of the resources available to individuals and organizations to learn more about the City’s Emergency Preparedness as well as COVID-19 mental health support: