COVID-19 Communication Crisis

In the early stages of the pandemic, the ABC reported that some official Australian COVID-19 messaging had been translated using Google Translate instead of accredited translators. Nonsensical messaging for non-English speaking communities resulted, disempowering already vulnerable people.

By Annabel Cook, Writer - Re

Sep 2021

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Growing up, I remember hearing this phrase a lot – ‘Australia is such a multicultural society’. On the news, by my teachers, by my friends and family and I certainly said it too. And with pride. 

Despite this widespread sense of pride for being so multicultural, Australia’s way of communicating to its multicultural and multilingual communities is not something we should be proud of. In a time of public health emergency, when good communication is critical and potentially life-saving, miscommunication and a lack of care continuously prevails. 

In the early stages of the pandemic, the ABC reported that some official Australian COVID-19 messaging had been translated using Google Translate instead of accredited translators. Nonsensical messaging for non-English speaking communities resulted, disempowering already vulnerable people.

Now, 18 months into the pandemic, communication blunders are still happening. In July, the ABC reported that it had taken the government eight weeks to update critical COVID-19 information online targeted at linguistically diverse communities. This meant that they were receiving out-of-date information regarding the AstraZeneca vaccine. 

Translating information into multiple languages regularly and accurately is no mean feat, but it is essential. 39% of Australians are culturally and linguistically diverse (Diversity Arts Australia) and 4% of those do not speak English well or at all (humanities.org.au). This group is more likely to suffer chronic illnesses and miss out on important health information due to low engagement, so a monolingual approach to communication is discriminatory and dangerous.

In March, we brought awareness to this issue with a project called Mistranslations. The project asked linguistically diverse creatives to reimagine COVID-19 messaging in their own language. By actively engaging those impacted by messaging blunders, it set out to show a more inclusive and effective way to reach diverse communities with critical information. To share these stories and launch the Mistranslations Project, 18 submissions were selected to be shown in a poster exhibition as part of Melbourne Design Week in March. 

So, where do we want to be 12 months from now? While we can appreciate that the Victorian Government has injected $14million into better supporting linguistically diverse communities, more thought needs to be taken to ensure we are better prepared for when the next communication crisis pops up. Because one inevitably will. 

While we celebrate multiculturalism in food, dance and music every other day, celebrating and taking pride in the plethora of languages spoken in Australia needs to translate to a higher standard of communication practices by our government and by each other. 

You can read the Mistranslations case study here.

Annabel Cook, Writer at Re Sydney

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