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Why Israel’s multilingual approach to vaccination works — and why our monolingual one doesn’t

Israel’s Ministry of Health has been taking a very multilingual approach to its vaccination campaign, with videos in Hebrew, Arabic, Russian and Amharic on vaccines and how they work, plus hasbara in Yiddish.

All the videos are up on YouTube and can be viewed here:

The short and clear one-minute videos discuss subjects like how effective vaccines are and how the technology works. A viewer can watch an explanation of the rate of protection after each dose.

Here, Dr. Anat Engel explains — in Hebrew — that tens of thousands of people participated in the vaccine trials, and that vaccine efficacy can reach 95% after the second dose.

The Yiddish explanatory video on the importance of getting vaccinated features Avremy Weinberg, a medical assistant at Kupat Cholim and a volunteer medic at Hatzoloh HaCarmel, and features a famous quotation from the Torah, in Deuteronomy 4:15 — v’nishmartem m’eod l’nafshoteichem — translated as “for your own sake, be most careful” by The Jewish Publication Society in 1985. The phrase sounds much more forceful in Hebrew, since “nafshoteichem” is your souls and also your lives.

In the Yiddish video, Weinberg refers to the corona as a mageifa, meaning “plague” — it’s an ancient Hebrew word, but Weinberg uses the Yiddish pronunciation.

Other short videos address the continued importance of proper mask-wearing — sometimes using humor. Some of these are bilingual, like this Russian-Hebrew combination.

In addition to the clear explanatory videos, complete with catchy graphics, the Ministry of Health has also used local “influencers” to help get the message out to Haredi and Arab communities.

Rabbinical endorsements, which are crucial in the Haredi community, are also helping to get the maximum number of people vaccinated. The major posek Rabbi Yitzchak Zilberstein was featured in the media giving his psak, or halachic opinion, on the obligation to get vaccinated.

This multilingual and multicultural approach is the opposite of what is happening in the U.S. — and certainly what happened in the crucial beginning phases of the pandemic, when America went with a decidedly monolingual approach that left out crucial segments of the population.

In mid-April, The Chicago Sun-Times reported on the astonishing lack of Spanish-language information from the CDC.

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “had plenty of information in English,” Dr. Maria Del Rios told the Sun-Times, “but when you look at the Spanish version of the website and click on a lot of those links, it takes you to a website that’s in English.”

This absence of information led some restaurants in Chicago to begin printing coronavirus information in Spanish on napkins. The White House was criticized for not providing a translated version of guidelines asking Americans to stay at home and avoid crowds of 10 or more people — and nothing happened until the Congressional Hispanic Caucus applied pressure.

Across the pond, the monolingual approach also caused damage. The BBC reported in late June that a lack of multilingual information on the coronavirus was “jeopardising the safety of non-English speakers in the UK.”

There are 88 languages besides English spoken as main languages in England and Wales.

“A government spokesperson said it “wouldn’t be feasible” to provide translations of all of these languages but that it had translated some of its “key messages” around coronavirus into the most common languages spoken in the UK,” the BBC reported.

But advocates said the pace of informing the public was deeply problematic, and complained that “the translations can take weeks to be updated when advice or rules change.”

Israel’s Ministry of Health website has daily multilingual uploads — including refreshers on previously publicized information and commentary on the importance of not losing hope and maintaining social-distancing protocols while waiting for one’s turn to get vaccinated.

Recently, for instance, there was a new round of multilingual videos on the importance of staying home, even as more Israelis get vaccinated. “For the benefit of all of us, stay home,” the videos implored.

For the benefit of all of us, regularly updated multilingual information on an international health crisis should be the norm — not a news story.

Aviya Kushner is The Forward’s language columnist and the author of The Grammar of God (Spiegel & Grau) and the forthcoming Wolf Lamb Bomb (Orison Books). Follow her on Twitter @AviyaKushner


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