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Covid-19 is impacting lives across the U.S., and health officials are racing to provide communities with important information about the illness. But language divides are likely to put non-English speakers at greater risk. While some health information is being translated into commonly spoken languages including Spanish and Chinese, the U.S. is home to non-English speakers who speak any of more than 350 other languages.

A new initiative from medical students and physicians at Harvard Medical School aims to help members of these communities by translating fact-based Covid-19 information. The initiative, known as the Covid-19 Health Literacy Project, has already translated essential Covid-19 information about prevention and possible treatment options, among other issues, in over 35 languages, including Navajo, Oromo (spoken by an ethnic group in Ethiopia), and Swahili.


A Covid-19 fact sheet in Swahili listing prevention measures. Courtesy Covid-19 Health Literacy Project and Harvard Health Publishing

Pooja Chandrashekar, a first-year medical student at Harvard, said she was inspired to start the project after she and her colleagues noticed a general lack of information was easily available to non-English speakers.

The few resources that are available in non-English languages don’t offer as much information about the nature of the disease, Chandrashekar said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has made essential information on Covid-19 available in Spanish and Chinese on its website. And individual states have taken steps to offer Covid-19 resources in various languages. Washington’s Department of Health offers information in 15 languages, for example, and the New Hampshire government has resources in eight languages (including a video in American Sign Language). Private citizens and nonprofits have also found ways to try and fill in the information gap for non-English speakers


But the Covid-19 Health Literacy Project seems to offer the most comprehensive set of resources for non-English speakers in the U.S.

STAT spoke with Chandrashekar to learn more about the initiative. The interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

What prompted the launch of this service and why is it an important one to be made available?

When I started this initiative around a week and a half ago, there were no similar services. We need to make sure that we’re not forgetting about the minority communities all around us that are often going to be disproportionately harmed by a pandemic like this.

The real lack of access for health information … makes it difficult for folks who don’t speak English, who are predominantly from immigrant communities, to know where and how to seek care. Health literacy becomes especially important in times like these: All communities of individuals have a right to know when and how to seek care.

How does this service work?

The goal of this project is to translate evidence-based Covid-19 information into different languages. [This] includes simplifying the language, summarizing key points, and adding visuals. We also try to fill in any gaps that we see. So it’s really meant to be kind of centralized repository of information that’s available in all these different languages. [The languages we’ve chosen] are the languages spoken by the medical students involved with us. We’ve had medical students and graduate students reach out and offer to translate the material into their native language. And our list of languages is continuously growing: If there’s a language not included on our website and someone reaches out to us, we see if we can get it translated for them.

Do you offer information tailored to specific subgroups?

We have also put together the Covid-19 children and pregnancy factsheet, which was directly in response to some of the national level of discussion that there’s not much information about how it affects pregnant women. And there are a lot of pregnant women still in the country who are worried about this. We also have factsheets for children, which are separated into age groups. And the reason we decided to create this factsheet was out of the realization that this information isn’t available.

what is coronavirus
An informational sheet about Covid-19 intended for children ages 3-6. Courtesy Covid-19 Health Literacy Project and Harvard Health Publishing

How do you ensure that the information is accurately translated?

We have two checks in place to make sure the information is translated correctly. Harvard Medical School faculty and physician check all of the [English] content. So that includes both infectious disease physicians and primary care physicians. The translation is then vetted by a faculty physician who is a native speaker or is proficient [in that language].

Many immigrant community members may not be able to easily access the internet to reach your website. How are you ensuring access?

We’re partnering with several different organizations, which includes community-based organizations such as local health departments and physicians. That was kind of my vision in the beginning. If you want to reach this community with lower health literacy, then you need pamphlets that you can hand out to patients when they come in.

How has the response to this initiative from the community been?

This project was able to bring together a national coalition of over 175 medical students to collectively represent 30 institutions and 37 languages. When I started the project, I wasn’t expecting this much interest just from the medical student community. And it’s also been exciting to see the different groups of people that are interested in our work [as] some of our materials are being distributed to folks in countries such as Tanzania and India, where some of these languages are [spoken by many more people].

  • Is anybody else getting an error message when they try to access the site? I’ve consistently gotten this error.

    This site can’t be reached.’s server IP address could not be found.

  • The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, aka Mormon church, has an immense reserve of foreign language speakers due to the number of people who have served missions throughout the world; these missionaries often pursue college majors or minors in their mission language. The church has also translated the Book of Mormon and other scriptures into many languages and contracts with native speakers and translators to accomplish an impressive and ever-growing number of translations. You might find it useful to contact someone in either the Office of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day or at Brigham Young U where, I think, a department exists to offer classes in languages too rare to support a department of their own. But thinking about this now, if I were doing it, I’d try some general Church agency before BYU. And I suspect that either the Presiding Bishop or the General Relief Society President might be easier to contact directly than the First Presidency. An internet search ought to give you names and contact info of either of these church officer. Translating health pamphlets for immigrants and refugees during a global pandemic is exactly the sort of task the Mormons would love–and be really good at.

  • While their efforts are laudable, I wonder why this Harvard group wouldn’t rely on actual language professionals (CERTIFIED interpreters/translators) to vet their materials or just produce the materials, period.

    No one would ever think of calling on random people without a medical license to come and provide healthcare. Why do we not think of calling on only trained and qualified linguists to translate materials?

    It has been disheartening in our neck of the woods (Santa Barbara County, California). A group of us Certified Court Interpreters—all public servants—recently tried to contribute our skills to the local public health agency only to be met with indifference and sometimes, downright hostility. Like most public agencies, they choose to rely on their under-qualified bilingual” staff to perform ad hoc translations that range from lackluster to substantially shoddy work, full of Spanglish and poor syntax/grammar. When we raise concerns and offer help, they feel threatened. At this point, we have stopped insisting.

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