The Coronavirus, Global Pandemics and the Role of the Medical Translator and Interpreter

February 5, 2020
The Coronavirus, Global Pandemics and the Role of the Medical Translator and Interpreter

The 1918 Flu Pandemic

The 1918 Spanish Influenza virus pandemic swept across the globe, killing nearly two percent of the population of the world: roughly 50 million people. In total, it infected some 500 million people, affecting one-third of the global population. Is it possible that one of the primary reasons for the rapid spread and the ensuing disruption was due to a lack of medical interpreters and translators?

Despite the less advanced modes of communication and transportation during that era, the 1918 Spanish global virus still gripped the world over the course of approximately "fifteen months from start to finish,” according to reports by the World Health Organization. It spread quickly, with devastating results. This devastation was manifested not only in terms of human life, but also in economic and social disruption. What would such a deadly global outbreak look like today? Are there any means in place to prevent further global pandemics or to address them more quickly and efficiently? Has the inclusion of medical translators and interpreters helped to lessen this or other global crises to any measurable degree?

The World Health Organization and Global Translation

If there were any lessons learned from the deadly and catastrophic results of the Spanish Influenza outbreak of 1918, it was the fact that it taught governments around the world to rethink how they approached the problem of global pandemics and the outbreak of infectious diseases. Institutions and policies were put into place that formed the basis of what would become global organizations, such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and similar groups worldwide.

The jobs of these organizations would be to analyze, research and share all of the relevant data with medical experts, researchers and others across the globe. Together, these experts would have a much better opportunity to end such an outbreak as quickly as possible. A rapid, global medical response could greatly mitigate the economic and social costs of global pandemics, as well as reducing loss of life. Data could quickly be distributed to universities, hospitals and researchers worldwide. This result, however, would only be possible once all of the relevant information had been fully processed and all of the documents accurately translated by medical interpreters and other professional document translation services.

As stated by Dr. Wioleta Karwacka, an expert on medical translation from the University of Gdansk, in her article about quality assurance in medical translation:

In order to facilitate communication with foreign or immigrant patients with limited language proficiency, and provide translated versions of medical documents (regulatory documents, scientific papers, patient forms), professional medical translators need to be employed.”

Thus, the services of certified translators and medical interpreters is inherent and an integral part of any global crisis response effort, no matter the ultimate cause.

How Likely Is a Global Pandemic?

According to the WHO, there is an ongoing and increasing risk of a deadly global pandemic sometime in the near future. The current coronavirus pandemic highlights the implications of such an outbreak occurring in the modern world. In the past, the virus behind the deadly outbreak could take weeks or even months to travel to different points around the world. With modern modes of transportation, an outbreak can spread around the globe in weeks or even days, with some reports like that of the Global Health Security Index co-authored by doctors from John Hopkins University showing a viral infection could span the globe in under 36 hours. Airplanes and other modern conveniences work to sow the seeds of destruction just as well as they do to benefit humanity.

Source: Global Health Security Index

The Global Health Security Index report, as noted in the illustration above, indicates that in many of the more vulnerable nations, there is a distinct characteristic. Many of the nations most susceptible to a major crisis from a global pandemic are linguistically diverse, enjoying more than one primary language and often, many more localized dialects as well. It is imperative that medical translation and other documentation translation services are available for the quick and efficient translation and dissemination of the relevant information in any crisis.

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What Is the Coronavirus?

The term “corona virus pandemic”, while not a misnomer, is not entirely accurate. The coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that can cause anything from the common cold to death. For those old enough to remember the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) viral outbreak of 2002, that particular viral pandemic was also the result of a virus from the coronavirus family. Thus, the more relevant question may be “What kind of virus is the current coronavirus coming out from China?”

The virus currently creating such a global stir is a “novel-coronavirus” according to the World Health Organization. Unfortunately, the WHO reports that not much is known about this particular strain of novel coronavirus (at least not at the time of writing). It appears that the current novel coronavirus may be contracted through very close human contact, such as that between a caregiver and their patient. However, it is not yet known if this spread is sufficient to then allow the healthcare workers to spread the virus on to other patients within their care.

How Does the Coronavirus Spread?

The novel coronavirus from China may or may not be spread via other means than those mentioned above, but this has not been tested or confirmed decisively. Neither is it known what the incubation period of the novel coronavirus is. Thus, infected people (or “carriers”) could easily be traversing the world, spreading the potential for death while being completely unaware of the lethal cost of their actions. Caregivers for and patients who have contracted the deadly ebola virus are routinely attacked due to similar concerns and due to the lack of information available in local languages and dialects.

The medical implications of such a potential spread are worrying, as are the social and economic costs. What will be the full cost of the current novel coronavirus? Right now, nobody can be certain. What is certain, however, is that translation services will be an integral part of the solution. Scientists, medical professionals and researchers who need to share data as accurately, quickly and efficiently as possible will use human translation services to do so.

Global Translation and Medical Interpretation

Medical translation and medical interpretation became key instruments in the academic, scientific and medical research that started across the globe in earnest in 1918. This was in large part due to the formation of numerous non-governmental organizations such as the UN (League of Nations), the World Health Organization and others. These fields include specialized areas of translation and have played a decisive role in the creation and implementation of government policies regarding health and disaster response and mitigation.

Translation is one of the primary functions of all of these global non-governmental agencies, working as they do with people from around the world. This is due to the fact that both instant verbal interpretation and document translation services work to inform those making and implementing policies of direct concern to the entire world. To discover more information about the importance of collaboration between global response teams and professional interpreters and translators kindly click the link below.

Read more: Fighting Climate Change with Translation, Language and Stories

None of these global organizations have yet been able to successfully venture far into the realm of machine translation. Instead, they rely primarily on the efforts of trained and certified translation professionals. While a machine translation may (at best) be able to provide a literal translation, it cannot capture the nuance or subtle meanings that a certified professional translator can. This subtle nuance of language is critical in many fields, as indicated by the reluctance of these international bodies to engage in machine translation in anything more than a peripheral manner.

When it comes to global pandemics, whether the current novel coronavirus or even more deadly global outbreaks, translation services should be among the primary components of a coordinated global response. If the current coronavirus pandemic is in fact spread largely by and between healthcare workers and their patients, such information needs to be translated and distributed immediately and globally upon confirmation. Unfortunately, a shortage of certified medical interpreters and translators has created a gap within the machinations of global crisis response. According to the Department of Labor Statistics, “Employment of interpreters and translators is projected to grow nineteen percent from 2018 to 2028, much faster than the average for all occupations.” This is despite the recent improvements in machine translation and in large part, driven by the shortage of certified translators not only in the US, but around the world.

If the coronavirus is in fact spread through close proximity, such as during the physical treatment of related ailments, it becomes imperative that medical translators and other types of interpreters also be employed at the local level. Interpreters should be on site at virtually all of the major medical centers around the world, most notably those currently pressed by the global refugee crisis. This is the only viable means by which the spread of the novel coronavirus and other diseases will be diminished or eradicated. Yet, such conditions are not unique to global pandemics or mere matters of health.

The Global Refugee Crisis

The German refugee crisis highlights how otherwise simple problems can be exacerbated by a lack of medical interpreters. Many of the refugees pouring into Germany speak neither English nor German. As such, communication can be very difficult. In terms of a global pandemic, the results could be devastating not only for the refugees, but for their host nation, which could be subject to major loss of life, economic ruination and social discord.

Even basic medical services, healthcare and treatment can be hampered due to the inability of patients to adequately communicate with medical practitioners, and vice versa. These problems are a daily occurrence not only as a result of the European refugee crisis, but also the Central American one. The global refugee crisis is in fact, a global concern and can only be rectified through the expansion and continuation of high quality translation services on a global scale.

It is not likely that anybody would willfully spread disease. However, to reduce the spread of the disease and to diminish the detrimental impact of any outbreak of disease, it is imperative that health care workers and other professionals can speak comprehensively and completely regarding treatment and prevention. The attacks on Ebola Patients and Healthcare workers alike are not in themselves malevolent manifestations seeking to allow the spread of the disease, but merely reactions stemming from a lack of understanding.

The inability of the health care professionals to quickly or efficiently communicate facts and information to the people and the inability of the people to understand the causes, cures or even basic precautions, allows for a much quicker and deadlier outbreak that may otherwise have been better contained. At the local level, this is made all the more challenging given the somewhat limited and restrictive dialects still in use in many parts of the world. Whether in terms of global pandemics or a societal upheaval resulting in mass migration, or any other global crisis for that matter, the essential role of the medical translator and professional interpreters should never be under-estimated.

The Role of Specialized Translation Services in Times of Global Crisis

The most pressing health-related concern at present is the novel coronavirus pandemic that began in China. Only when all of the relevant research, analysis and other documentation has been properly transcribed, translated and dispersed globally, will researchers and professionals around the world be capable of commencing further studies based on hard evidence. In terms of more deadly and destructive global virus outbreaks, these same concerns become even more urgent.

The employment of professional translation services and certified language interpreters is imperative in virtually every aspect of global crisis response and management. The direct impact of social disruption due to panic can be alleviated through the rapid and precise distribution of factual and helpful information. Economic disruption can be mitigated through the distribution of information regarding the prevention and spread of the virus pandemic, allowing people to continue working and functioning as productive and contributing members of their respective societies. More importantly, any global pandemic can be responded to quickly as research, analysis and data is translated and distributed to medical, scientific and academic communities around the world.

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By Ofer Tirosh

Ofer Tirosh is the founder and CEO of Tomedes, a language technology and translation company that supports business growth through a range of innovative localization strategies. He has been helping companies reach their global goals since 2007.



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