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Lost in translation: one of many problems faced by health workers against COVID-19

Jamuna Parajuli (L) and Prabha Shrestha (R) are both community health nurses working with people from refugees and asylum seekers in Melbourne. Source: Jamuna Parajuli and Prabha Shrestha

As our frontline health workers help us beat the pandemic, accurate translation and interpretation of safety messages are key to educating the community about ways to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Prabha Shrestha and Jamuna Parajuli are known within Victoria's Nepali community for their work in female empowerment and assisting survivors of domestic violence.

Before COVID-19, the nursing duo were working to support refugees and migrants from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities.

However, their community service now includes educating people about ways to prevent the spread of coronavirus, leading to some unexpected challenges. 

"With the implementation of stage 4 restrictions, a lot of our work is done remotely. This means we assist our clients via telephone, through the assistance of an interpreter," says Ms Parajuli, who works for an organisation called Your Community Health.  

"The other week, I had to explain to a family about how to put on and take off a face mask safely. People think it's just a mask, how difficult it can be? But to explain something like that on the phone, through an interpreter, can be very challenging." 

COVID-19 testing in Broadmeadows.
COVID-19 screening in suburban Melbourne

Ms Prabha Shrestha, who works as a community health nurse at Djerriwarrh Health Services in Melton, shared a similar experience with SBS. 

"Many vulnerable members of the community have difficulty in their own language, which adds to the complexity," she says.

"Some of these people can't even correctly tell their address. Sometimes they need to visit a GP or go and have a test. It becomes really challenging for all parties."

She adds, there are times when the client and the interpreter have issues of pronunciation and things of such nature.


Translation and Interpretation Service (TIS),  provides free translation and interpreting service across the country, including for the National Coronavirus Health Information Hotline.

This service is provided on behalf of the Federal Department of Home Affairs. 

A spokesperson from the Department of Home Affairs told SBS that since the COVID19 spread in Australia and the commencement of Stage 4 restrictions in Victoria, there has been a decline in onsite (face-to-face) interpreting services and an increase in pre-booked telephone-based interpreting services. 

"This is due to a large number of agency clients opting to use telephone services to reduce the risk of exposure to COVID19 for the community," the spokesperson said.

People wait in line to receive a COVID-19 test at a Coronavirus pop-up testing facility in Broadmeadows, Melbourne.
People wait in line to receive a COVID-19 test at a Coronavirus pop-up testing facility in suburban Melbourne.

DHA says experienced interpreters have extensive skills to overcome communication challenges which may arise during an interpreting session.   

"An interpreter's role is to accurately convey the whole spoken message from one language to another while adhering to the Australian Institute of Interpreters and Translators Code of Ethics."  

It also told SBS that TIS National would be launching a new service channel of using video interpreting services for telehealth purposes. 

"This service will be available to health practitioners nationally. This new service will enhance the experience of all parties through visual communication, while delivering vital health services in a COVIDSafe way," the DHA spokesperson said. 

Since 1 July 2020, demand for immediate telephone interpreting has increased in comparison to the same period last year, with the 10 languages most in demand being Mandarin, Arabic, Vietnamese, Korean, Farsi, Cantonese, Spanish, Tamil, Dari and Thai the DHS says.

A woman places a coronavirus testing swab in her mouth at a pop-up testing site during a COVID-19 testing blitz in the suburb of Broadmeadows on June 28, 2020.
A woman places a coronavirus testing swab in her mouth at a pop-up testing site during a COVID-19 testing blitz in the suburban Melbourne.

Early experience 

When the World Health Organisation declared the pandemic in late March and Prime Minister Scott Morrison introduced a raft of measures to control and prevent a growing number of COVID-19 cases in Australia, both Prabha Shreshtha and Jamuna Parajuli, like many other health workers, were thrust into the front-line. 

Ms Shrestha, who works in the outer northwest fringes of Melbourne, says as an early response to the pandemic, her organisation a COVID clinic almost instantly.

"We work in a setting with multiple partners, so it was crucial to heed the health advice and mitigate any possibility of spreading of virus through sanitisation, physical distancing," she says.

"We had our temperatures taken and needed to fill a form every time we came in."

Female doctor checking temperature
Getty Images

For Ms Parajuli, it was a very different experience.

"We observed all the rules and regulations as stipulated by the government. There was social distancing and all, but nothing extraordinary to be concerned about - even in the community," she says.

But everything changed with the second wave of infections in Melbourne.

"My organisation teamed up with the government to start mass screening of the communities as it became apparent that the crisis was burgeoning."

Healthcare workers are seen at a drive-through COVID-19 testing facility in Melbourne on 18 August.
Healthcare workers are seen at a drive-through COVID-19 testing facility in Melbourne

Shrestha, on the other hand, adds it was an eerie time as the once-bustling streets were deserted overnight.

"It almost felt like in movies - typical tumbleweed rolling ghost town and medicos with their PPE overalls."

Recalling the challenges, both Shrestha and Parajuli say it was not only about taking swabs - but also educating them about the ways to prevent being infected by the virus.

"We showed them ways to maintain hygiene, observe and maintain social distancing. We also distributed hand sanitisers," adds Ms Parajuli. 


Between 5 am and 8 pm, people in Melbourne can leave home for exercise, to shop for necessary goods and services, for work, for health care, or to care for a sick or elderly relative. 

All Victorians must wear a face covering when they leave home, no matter where they live.

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state's restrictions on gathering limits. 

If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, stay home and arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080. 

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