Interview with Distinguished Nerdy Guest, Anne R. Pebley, PhD

Staying Safe Uncertainty and Misinformation

Dear Pandemic is pleased to bring you this interview with Distinguished Nerdy Guest, Anne R. Pebley, PhD.

Dr. Pebley is a Distinguished Professor at UCLA and a social demographer whose research focuses on social inequality both in the United States and globally. She joins us today to talk about the need for timely and accurate COVID-19 info in languages other than English, and a project she is working on (@UCLACOVID19) to fill that gap.

We could go on and on about Dr. Pebley’s many credits, but the nearest and dearest to us here at Dear Pandemic is that she chaired both Alison’s and Malia’s doctoral committees. She is, in so many ways, one of our OG nerds. If you love our work, thank Dr. Pebley for training us to do it.

Q: Where can we find COVID-19 information in languages other than English?

A: UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health is providing a central source of up-to-date, easy-to-read key COVID-19 information on their website. It is translated into 6 languages: English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Armenian.

This is part of an FSPH collaboration called the Multilingual COVID-19 Information Project. We’re also launching a social media campaign on Facebook, Twitter , Instagram, and other platforms with the aim of reaching a larger and younger audience who can then share the information with family members.

We’re also contributing to a multilingual resource hub with coronavirus links in many languages, created by the UCLA Asian American Studies Center (AASC) in collaboration with our group. Link to website.

Q: Why do you think it’s important to provide coronavirus information in these languages?

A: What happens to the COVID-19 pandemic depends on whether or not individual people know about and use measures to safeguard themselves and others. For example, there is a lot of confusion about when you should wear a mask and why, and this confusion means that many people simply don’t wear masks at all or wear them in ways that are useless. So it’s essential that everyone have clear, reliable, and up-to-date information that they can understand about what to do to stop the infection from spreading. Immigrants are a large proportion of the population of Southern California — about a third of the population of Los Angeles County, for example. So if we are going to reach all of the population, we need to do so in English and other languages.
Also, immigrants and others whose primary language is not English are particularly vulnerable to the pandemic. Many have jobs which cannot be done at home or remotely. And these jobs (in grocery stores, delivery services, meatpacking plants, and other places) require working up close to other people and coming into frequent contact with the general public. This makes it more likely that workers will be exposed to COVID-19 and become sick. High rates of COVID-19 infection is tragic for the people and families involved, but also bad for all of us, because people who are sick help the virus spread.

Q: How did this project get started?

A: In early March, I was talking to a group of MPH students whose family members speak limited English. They were frustrated that most reliable information on COVID-19 and the coronavirus was only available in English or only in very poor translations. And also that their family members were getting a lot of unreliable and seriously misleading information from the media and the internet. After some thinking, we decided we wanted to help.

Q: So who is involved in the project?

A: We started the project with a team of six professors in the Department of Community Health Sciences at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health (Hiram Beltrán-Sánchez, Gilbert Gee, Jessica Gipson, Steven Wallace, May Wang, and me). None of us are infectious disease experts, but we all work with immigrant communities in the US and globally and care about many of the issues they face– and some of us are immigrants ourselves. We also have easy access to colleagues who are world renowned experts in infectious diseases and particularly emerging infections, so we knew we could easily get advice when needed. Our group now also includes five MPH students, all of whom come from bilingual or multilingual backgrounds and have expertise in health communications.
As part of the project, we have collaborated with the Asian American Studies Center (AASC) at UCLA. Right about when we started work, they started a project to provide reliable links to coronavirus information in many Asian and non-Asian languages. Two professors and several students involved with the FSPH Multilingual Project have also worked closely with AASC on their website.

Q: How did you choose Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Armenian?

A: We looked at data from the US Census and the California Health Interview Survey (CHIS) to find the most common languages used by people who do not speak primarily English in southern California. Although many people who speak Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and Armenian also speak English well, it’s not true for everyone.

Q: What is the most challenging part of this Multilingual Project?

A: Keeping up with quickly changing information about the coronavirus and COVID-19 and providing often complex, nuanced evidence-based information in easy to read language. Also, the issues created by the pandemic are not just health issues, but also economic, financial, housing, employment, and food needs. We want to try to provide the information people need in the most reliable form possible.

Q: What’s next?

A: We have just launched our social media effort and have much more work to do there. Given the speed with which the pandemic started and how quickly it spread, up until now we’ve concentrated on getting reliable information out. We’ve had a limited amount of interaction with community-based organizations, but we now want to talk more with them to find out about their information needs and the needs of the groups they serve. We also want to see what we are doing well and doing poorly. Finally, we’d like to interact more with non-English media groups to understand what they are hearing from their readers and viewers and to see what we can help with.

Q: What’s been the most fun part of the project so far?

A: I’d say three things. First, I get to work with a terrifically talented group of faculty and students from a broad range of backgrounds and perspectives. That’s been a lot of fun. Second, I have had to get up to speed quickly on a lot of new software for production and management of social media content and posts — so I figure I am building a lot of neurons in my brain while doing this! Third, I speak some Spanish and was a Chinese language student in college. I’ve never had the chance to use the two languages together and it’s fun.

Q: How is this project funded?

A: All of the faculty and staff work on this project is done on a volunteer basis. We received funding from Fielding School of Public Health to provide a limited amount of support to students working on this project. We are trying to raise some additional funding to make it possible to expand the type and breadth of content we produce. For example, videos can be really useful in helping people understand complex issues but coronavirus videos are rarely available in all the languages we work in so we would like to start making a limited number of videos ourselves, but this takes a modest amount of money to do.

Q: What kind of feedback have you gotten?

A: My favorite comment came from an older woman I know who speaks primarily Spanish. With a smile on her face, she said “This is really useful, but you’re making it difficult for me. I can’t say anymore that I just don’t understand all these things!”

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