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A video screen provides a feed to a live Cantonese language translator for a couple who were about to receive the first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, March 13, 2021, on the first day of operations at a mass vaccination site at the Lumen Field Events Center in Seattle.Ted S. Warren/The Associated Press

Amy Chyan is a journalist and podcast producer.

I’ve been the household translator for my parents ever since I can remember – calling into telecom companies and deciphering government forms on their behalf – so switching between English and Mandarin is second nature to me. Translating medical lingo for strangers in what could be considered a matter of life of death, however, was new.

When a friend told me about a volunteer opportunity to help a mobile COVID-19 vaccine clinic serving low-income seniors, I jumped at the chance. Within my own family, I’ve seen the distress a language barrier can cause for the aged. And I know that as variants contribute to a third wave of the virus in a number of provinces, there’s an urgency to get vulnerable older populations vaccinated.

Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table recommends that seniors living in naturally occurring retirement communities (NORCs) – various types of housing that have a dense population of older adults – be vaccinated through mobile clinics. Toronto has 489 buildings that are classified as NORCs and they’re home to 70,013 adults over the age of 65. Of that population, 30,346 are over the age of 80. Many of these communities have residents who aren’t fluent in English or have mobility issues, as well as various disabilities. The translation needs include Greek, Serbian, Polish, Russian, Somali, Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese and Korean.

The apartment complex I was assigned to fit this description. One of Toronto Community Housing’s more than 80 seniors-designated buildings, the majority of residents are 55 and older. I recognized the building, as I’d been there before to help deliver groceries to 95-year-old man through the Friendly Neighbour Hotline, a University Health Network OpenLab initiative. From our previous conversations – I’d call to double check his grocery requests, which are often lost in translation – I knew he’d been living there for almost 10 years, and which brand of chicken dumplings and rice vinegar he prefers.

Since COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on our daily lives, I have turned to my local community in order to compartmentalize my anxiety and preserve my sanity. I’m a small-potato-nobody compared with our front-line and essential workers, but I believe in lending a helping hand. My most cherished part of humanity is when we offer what we can – and for me that is language interpretation. It’s my superpower.

“When you are able to speak directly to someone in the same language, it’s really powerful,” said Craig Madho, a research analyst at the UHN OpenLab who has been co-ordinating vaccine outreach and volunteers for mobile clinics. “It helps provide comfort to the person you’re speaking with, the clarity of understanding, and it’s somewhat about trustworthiness as well.”

All of which was much needed on my volunteer day. Out of all the seniors I met, only three could speak English or fill out any forms on their own.

Residents began pacing outside the building’s activity room as soon as the hospital team started setting up. I explained we’d be going floor to floor, all 14 in the building, so it was best to go home and wait. I could sense their excitement and restlessness; no one wanted to miss out. A few people even came by with their health cards in hand, ready to roll up their sleeves. But there was more to the process than a simple jab to the arm. There was paperwork. And a lot of it.

The arduous consent form, sprinkled with medical jargon, became a pain point, as it had to be translated and completed by volunteers before the vaccine could be administered. This slowed the progress of the clinical teams – each comprising one doctor, one medical scribe and one translator.

As we worked our way through the floors, it was clear that translators are crucial to the process. Being asked whether you’re allergic to polyethylene glycol and polysorbate isn’t a common question for most people, never mind seniors who don’t understand the terms. Out of the eight doctors present that day, only two spoke another language that was useful to the building’s residents. At times I was running up and down the hallway to help with translation needs.

What I witnessed during my eight-hour shift confirmed what Mr. Madho and the Friendly Neighbour Hotline had already learned from 12 months of grocery deliveries: Language can be a serious obstacle to a person receiving essential services and care.

Based on feedback from the vaccination clinical teams and volunteers, he told me, they’re working on shortening the provincial consent forms. Some hospital teams have already moved on to verbal consent only.

As vaccine supply improves and mass vaccination clinics ramp up, people working behind the scenes and on the front line will need more support than ever. Empathy and patience is going to be paramount. If you have the bandwidth and the language skills, consider volunteering. Regardless of disability, language or technology barriers, everyone deserves dignity and comfort when it comes to receiving health care.

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