We’re approaching the second anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic forever altering so many aspects of our lives. It is difficult to comprehend how much has changed—and how much is still in flux.
Yet where public services are concerned, we can look back on these past 24 months of policymaking and implementation—and see sprouts of progress amid myriad challenges.
One realm where I’ve seen significant leaps and bounds is public communications. As a journalist who has spent a good amount of time reading government websites, budgets and legal documents, I can confirm that our public institutions are often as clear as mud when it comes to communicating what’s going on.
During the pandemic, though, communicating to people about staying safe became essential. And here in the Coachella Valley, there were some significant steps taken in public-communication efforts that will hopefully outlast COVID-19.
At the Desert Healthcare District and Foundation, the Coachella Valley Equity Collaborative’s COVID-19 response team made equity a top priority in their efforts to share information about testing, vaccines and other health messaging. The collaborative was established by the district in the fall of 2020 specifically to implement an equitable response to COVID-19.
Will Dean, the director of communications and marketing at the DHCD, said it was critical for the team to disseminate fliers, video PSAs and other messaging in Spanish as well as English. About 40% of Coachella Valley residents speak Spanish at home, according to the DHCD’s Community Needs Assessment from September 2021.
The district also works with a local translator to provide materials in Purépecha. This Indigenous language is spoken by hundreds of valley residents who come from Michoacán, a northwest region of Mexico. The district’s partners have translated materials into Mayan as well, Dean said.
But equitable communication goes beyond language. Dean said the biggest impact on reaching local Spanish speakers has come through working with promotoras, or community health workers. They attend vaccine and testing events to answer questions and canvas neighborhoods with informational fliers.
“They not only know the language, but they know the customs, challenges and concerns of the communities we serve, because these are their communities,” Dean said. “They have been and continue to be an invaluable resource for the Coachella Valley Equity Collaborative.”
From the fall of 2020 to March 2021, the collaborative distributed more than 10,000 vaccine doses to farmworkers, essential workers and other underserved populations. The multilingual campaign also included testing and support-services information, supported by $1.2 million in CARES Act dollars and $500,000 from the nonprofit Public Health Institute.
Ultimately, good communication is fundamental to achieve equity with our policy responses. Consider the obfuscation around the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program, which was meant to help small businesses during the pandemic: Initial guidance in 2020 made it difficult for non-citizen small-business owners to qualify, even though they could be eligible. Later versions of the rules clarified that people who are not citizens could still receive the loan assistance, according a February 2021 White House press release.
Though a focus on language and clarity may seem obvious, the unfortunate reality is that many government institutions and support agencies do not have the technology, money or knowledge to ensure that communications are effective.
“It’s considered a given that communication and marketing are ineffective if the intended recipients can’t comprehend the language; however, multilanguage health and wellness information isn’t always available,” Dean said.
Special-interest groups often step in to fill gaps where government agencies are lacking. The Ask a Nurse LIVE project from the American Nurses Association of California allows people to virtually connect with a nurse to ask COVID-19 related questions in English or Spanish. The goal of the volunteer-staffed effort is to “build trusted relationships, understand concerns and fears, and provide scientific information, not medical or clinical advice, to help visitors make informed decisions.”
That last part is especially important. In a time of rapid change and invention, it is helpful for people to have a chance to think through what is being asked of them—and they can’t have that moment of deliberation if they’re denied the chance to get information in a safe, comfortable and understandable way.
These lessons about public communications from this strange time could yield positive benefits for future public-health and societal initiatives. Health Affairs, an established health-policy journal, recently looked at how lessons learned from the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine could assist in efforts to get people to accept the malaria vaccine.
Public agencies and institutions must continue to take seriously accessibility and inclusion in how they disseminate information. They ought to be interested in reaching as many members of the public as possible—unless they want to risk alienating the very people they claim to be trying to serve.