Queens lawmaker introduces bill requiring federal agencies to translate COVID-19 materials into multiple languages

Photo courtesy of Rep. Grace Meng’s office

Congresswoman Grace Meng on April 28 introduced a bill that would require all federal government agencies to translate written COVID-19-related materials to be into multiple languages for the public. 

The COVID-19 Language Access Act would apply to any federal agency that receives coronavirus-related funding.

It would mandate agencies to provide written resources in 19 languages including: Spanish, Arabic, Cambodian, Chinese, Haitian Creole, French, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Laotian, Russian, Tagalog, Urdu, Vietnamese, Greek, Polish, Thai, and Portuguese.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Meng has worked to help translate materials released by the Trump administration and federal agencies in order for the diverse communities in her district to obtain the critical information they need about COVID-19.

Now, Meng says, the federal agencies must translate their own resources so that all ethnic and non-English speaking communities in Queens and throughout the country can receive the materials they require. 

“It is unacceptable that federal agencies have not provided all these translations, but the passage of my bill would ensure that they finally do. Language barriers must never prevent anybody from accessing vital and potentially life-saving information,” Meng said. “Nobody should ever be left in the dark about the coronavirus, and providing these translations would be critical in our fight to combat the illness.”

The languages selected for translations in the legislation are based on languages required in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Language Access Plan for Disaster Assistance. The plan, released in October 2016, seeks to address the language needs of diverse populations.

Meng noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does provide language accessibility telephone services in 16 languages and some COVID-19-related material in up to 14 languages. 

Additionally, the recently enacted CARES Act that Meng supported requires the Small Business Administration (SBA) to provide resources in 10 languages. 

But the congresswoman emphasized the need for all agencies to provide coronavirus-related resources in as many languages as possible, and as quickly as possible. 

All Americans, including the 25 million Americans who have limited English proficiency, desperately need and absolutely deserve timely and accurate information during the global pandemic, according to Juliet Choi, executive vice president at the Asian and Pacific Islander American Health Forum, and the former Chief of Staff at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights. 

“If this section of our population does not have access to public health information in their primary language, and if front line workers are not equipped with the language resources they need in serving the public, we cannot expect our national response to succeed,” Choi said. “Our government must respect each person’s right to participate in the health and economic recovery effort.” 

Frankie Miranda, president of the Hispanic Federation, said it’s not the time for the federal government to take a hit-and-miss approach to this critical issue. 

“Sporadic translation of some health and other information into a few languages other than English is inadequate in a country where over 60 million people — almost 1 in 5 — have limited English proficiency,” Miranda said. “Health literacy, and knowing where and how to seek care and other assistance, becomes especially important for individuals and the communities they live in during a national health crisis.” 

According to John Yang, president of and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC), about 1 in 3 Asian Americans has limited proficiency in English.

“This bill will help ensure that our communities have the vital information necessary to protect their health and access care, obtain financial resources, and safeguard their civil rights,” Yang said.