Closing out 2020: A message from Executive Director Latha Sukumar

By: Cheryl

How have we done during this extraordinary year?!

In early 2020, I had just returned from India, we were all set to celebrate MCIS’ 30th anniversary at the Ontario Science Centre, and a team of us were actually bound for a conference in San Diego the day following the celebrations. Up until then, winter had gone by smoothly and everything had seemed like more of the same. How I wish that had been the case! Then murmurs began the first week in March about a global situation with an unknown virus that was making its rounds and fast approaching our shores. On March 6, the MCIS team huddled together, quite literally for the last time, and cancelled our grand anniversary celebration. We then proceeded to cancel our flights to and accommodation in San Diego, not wanting to get stuck anywhere with flights refusing to bring us back. On March 12, the murmurs reached a crescendo when the World Health Organisation announced a global pandemic, sending chills down our collective spines. The media onslaught came next, with warnings about a strange and deadly pneumonia, first diagnosed in Wuhan, China, brought on by the novel coronavirus that was spreading like wildfire. The Government of Canada still had us at a low risk level though. What would this all mean for our safety? Top of mind were concerns about close family members scattered around the globe, and the means to our livelihood.

My initial reaction was “Come on, this is all a gross overreaction, an infodemic, the bane of social media unnecessarily spreading conspiracy theories and panic.”  However, Veronica Costea, MCIS’ Director of Client Services’ sobering voice in my ears spoke, “I think we need to plan for remote work.”  In many ways, I am a dreamer, and I definitely needed this jolt of reason. Then came the questions. We were the voice of some of our most vulnerable so we needed to offer services. However, in the best of times, our interpreters worked under extremely challenging circumstances, so what risks would we be exposing them to? What about the safety of our 60 staff who operated within a tightly packed office space?  Word had it that mere contact with an object touched by someone who was a carrier could set off an infection. Given the virus’ R0 factor, the rate at which it spread, was alarmingly high, we would be endangering community safety if we all breathed the same air in a confined space!

So we began to pivot. By March 17, Ontario had declared a state of emergency and we had sent most of our staff to work from home. Since MCIS offers an essential service, a few of us continued to come in to the office to plan our business continuity. We needed to order laptops, purchase Zoom licenses, implement more online teleconference rooms, secure better internet access and VPN connections for all. We had to train people on working remotely and ensure proper coordination between teams. We then quickly put together a communications task force and updated our website with a COVID Response page and FAQs to minimize calls from customers and vendors. We posted weekly vlogs with important announcements on our website, and sent out newsletters on a regular basis. Additionally, we dedicated staff resources to receive vendor and customer calls.

Though a not-for-profit, we relied on our earned income to keep our operations going. Not unlike every other enterprise in Ontario, we were caught off-guard by the drastic drop in our service volume. We had decided to suspend in-person interpretation services until June 30 to ensure the safety of our interpreters. We tried to substitute with phone and video assignments, but the uptake was slow because the agencies that requested our services had their own struggles adapting.

In the month of April, the Senior Management team met with MCIS’ Managers over Zoom every day for a couple of hours to address and problem-solve issues that arose. Once we were firm in our business continuity plan, we chose not to dwell on doom and gloom scenarios, but focussed on opportunities instead. There were two kinds: opportunities where we could be of service to others, and projects we could work on for which we now had more time.

For the first, we set up a free over-the-phone interpretation line to assist food banks and other such emergency services to provide access for Limited English Speaking (LES) callers. We also helped smaller agencies by providing them with free translation of their emergency communications. We created a clearinghouse of COVID-19 related resources in over 50 languages on our website. Most important of all, we observed how language barriers compounded the challenges LES had accessing critical information and services, and sponsored an independent consultant to rally around the sector to organize a Language Advocacy Day in February 2021.

As for the second, we engaged volunteer consultants from Management Advisory Services to help facilitate an organisational restructure and help us create a three-year strategic plan. We clarified roles and responsibilities, and identified areas of focus to help us work remotely, make better use of technology and prepare for a future where AI would become ubiquitous. We incorporated learnings acquired from operating remote during these extraordinary times and completed both by November 2020. We also updated our vendor rosters with the latest greatest information and upgraded our Remote Interpretation and Translator Training programs to make them more generic and to bring them to a wider global audience.

Financially, we have done well. Demand for services has picked up and we have expanded our service offerings, averaging dozens more video remote interpretation services per day, where pre-COVID, we saw much fewer. We did take advantage of financing options to prepare for contingencies, and also accessed the Canada Emergency Benefit programs.

The mental health of our staff and vendors has been a key concern for us. We have offered three free mental health webinars to date and organized an online AGM and other networking opportunities.

Change is never comfortable, especially when it is forced upon us in such a dramatic fashion. There were no precedents to draw upon and we had nothing to anchor ourselves to. We were flying by the seat of our pants. We had so many moving parts. We had to ensure the trust of our language professionals who saw their income sources drying up. We had to help customers deliver services in new ways by meeting them more than half way. We had to ensure the staff team received the requisite support even as they took on more technically challenging tasks, collaborating through chat on the cloud-based call centre.

I am grateful that MCIS had the foresight to be ready for this moment, having moved its call centre and its interpretation and translation management systems to the cloud, pre-COVID. The staff has been nothing short of stupendous ably guided by exemplary leadership and support from an extraordinary Board of Directors who came prepared to every meeting and asked tough questions to ensure MCIS stayed true to its mission and did everything to remain sustainable. I do have to make special mention of MCIS’ extraordinary two person IT team. They helped us operate remotely almost immediately and have with great patience provided each of us much needed technical support.

Where in the past we were unsure of our social purpose, we now have a renewed sense of the impact we can make. We realize more than ever that we are all connected and the more we operate in service of others the better we serve MCIS, our individual selves and our community as a whole. COVID-19 has devastated humanity causing premature death, ruining livelihoods and taking a grave toll on people’s mental health. However, I wonder if we needed this rude awakening to steer us towards a kinder, more equitable and environmentally sustainable future. I hope then that we never forget the human sacrifices made.  I will conclude with the following quote that truly resonated with me:

“When this ends, we will reorient our politics and make substantial new investments in public goods—for health, especially—and public services. I don’t think we will become less communal. Instead, we will be better able to see how our fates are linked…The coronavirus pandemic is going to cause immense pain and suffering. But it will force us to reconsider who we are and what we value, and, in the long run, it could help us rediscover the better version of ourselves.”