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Covid-19 in 50 languages

So, you’re feeling ill, it’s the middle of the Covid-19 lockdown, you don’t speak English and your mobile phone is 12 years old. How do you manage?


That’s when you need an organisation like Sussex Interpreting Services (SIS), a registered charity that has been supporting people’s access to public services for over 25 years. Just before the virus hit, SIS was delivering around 1500 interpreting sessions a month for people whose first language was not English. The Covid-19 crisis added a whole new level of complexity to that. Overnight.


The average monoglot Brit who struggles to say ‘oui’ and ‘non’ on a weekend in Paris might think everyone in the UK speaks English. Yet, as Alice Evans’ report for the BBC suggests ‘four million people in England and Wales do not consider English to be their main language’ while there are ‘over 800,000 people who speak little or no English’ and 88 languages other than English are used as a principle language.


This points to the importance of voluntary action by organisations like SIS which, with 15 employees and a pool of 100 sessional linguists, delivered services in around 50 languages last year – sometimes in emergency situations. Their situation during the Covid-19 crisis mirrors some of what we’ve been hearing elsewhere. Services have had to re-adapt fast, funding was required quickly, with the minimum of fuss, and statutory partners had to be flexible.


Getting close up


But what’s the inside story? Let’s get granular. We spoke to Arran Evans, an SIS Director, about the challenges for the people they support, the design and funding difficulties SIS faced, and the flexible ways they responded.

For people with difficulties in English, obtaining GP appointments remained extremely difficult until the beginning of July. Many of SIS’s service users would normally drop in at the doctor’s surgery. However, the (understandable) growth of automated phone services – as an access point for public services – created barriers for certain groups. SIS worked alongside people who could not understand the correct selection to choose in the complex series of options offered by automated phone services.

Arran pointed out that ‘if people cannot understand the instructions and the system – they do not get access’. For mental health services, for example, it could take over 40 minutes in English to go through all the questions. One of SIS’s tasks was to explain the service users’ access needs to statutory services to which they were entitled.


Linkage to statutory services


In the early stages, strategic statutory partners were slow to respond. For example, GP surgeries closed, but people still needed their necessary or regular appointments. The consultation that a SIS interpreter would attend, alongside the service user, stopped overnight.

‘We can’t do what we do without collaboration with hundreds of people’
says Arran. SIS estimates that they lost 85% of work because appointments were cancelled, the translator had to go home, while, crucially, the person in need did not get diagnosed or treated.

Information needs presented another important dimension. Although every local community is different, large sections within BAME communities have stayed at home during the Covid-19 crisis. Language difficulties have meant that it was sometimes easier for them to obtain information about Covid from family members outside the UK. However, by the time such news arrived here the message may not have been clear, correct, or up-to-date. Arran explained that:

‘We spent lots of time auditing information – adapting it and posting it on our pages and translating – and distributing it to the council … The very best and useful information was what we got from
Doctors of the World, not government at large which had done little on this issue.’


Agile organisational adaptions


In the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, Arran said, SIS had to fundamentally re-design their whole service almost overnight including the web site and phone service.‘We had to be very creative. We don’t have enormous resources.’


They designed a free platform that was working well with interpreters online. But there were still access challenges: many of SIS’s users did not even have an up-to-date working phone. SIS developed important and collaborative links to the Clinical Commissioning Group and doctor’s surgeries in cases where it was necessary for people to be shielding for medical reasons.


Arran pointed out:


‘The interpreters have been magnificent but SIS is now about half the size it was … It is exhausting to gain income from contracts. Funding dried up. We had to significantly use our reserves.’




Most funding streams that appeared during the crisis were exhausted before SIS could even apply. Meanwhile, some funders even thought SIS was not a voluntary organisation as their work was concerned with people’s access to statutory organisations!


Overall, Arran acknowledged that:


‘It has been emotionally draining in our team. We’ve been supporting people facing domestic violence or asylum seekers who are destitute or with long term illness.’


Dealing with this has had long term affects on staff and interpreters.


‘We’re not machines! And we’re not together physically like usual. We’re isolated at home and some colleagues are working and sleeping in one room. It’s very tough!’




It was hard for a relatively small organisation like SIS to get local strategic partners to respond. However, as Arran explained:


‘We’re so proud of what we’ve achieved. But you can’t do that forever… It’s very draining. Do local authorities, government funders get it?’


This points to the vital role of independent voluntary organisations like SIS in identifying, and acting upon, social disadvantage. SIS have developed – and adapted – a model of working based on their closeness to the people they work with over the long term. And their small team have been agile in re-designing their entire service, in a national emergency, at short notice.


As Arran indicates: ‘We’ve worked right through the crisis. It’s been very tough. Really tough.’

Acting locally in the Covid-19 era

Covid-19 has been like a viral version of globalisation. It’s the import and export of a deadly virus that pays no respect to national borders. So what’s local community action got to do with an international pandemic?

At a national level, of course, we have needed to mobilise the public sector, most notably the NHS. At a personal level, social media has provided ways for us to communicate with friends, family and colleagues across continents. But has the pandemic either stimulated – or stifled – local community action?

At one level, helping a neighbour with shopping; waving through the window to someone in isolation; sticking up a poster about a Mutual Aid scheme; all represent important contributions to our local communities. We could think of these as individual civic acts. Alongside this, mobilising our contacts with voluntary, community and co-operative organisations in our towns and villages has also been crucial. Local community action has an important complementary role to play in the current crisis but it also faces challenges.

Vulnerable people hardest hit

First, it’s important to note that community groups were already providing frontline support to people before the crisis. For example, they may have offered support or advocacy to people who were homeless or living in overcrowded temporary hostels; to undocumented migrants who encountered barriers to accessing health care; and to people on low incomes who relied on food banks to survive.

Second, it’s worth recognising that local groups have encouraged the associational life that is so important for mental wellbeing and local engagement. Over the last months most community centres have necessarily remained closed. These were places where people might learn yoga, drama or juggling; or organise and advocate for local needs; or provide places to socialise and meet friends. These are not frontline emergency services. But they may be vital locations for fostering mutual support and wellbeing.

Practitioner Voices

Let’s take two examples. At one community centre, in a densely packed neighbourhood in the south, volunteers have been regularly cleaning the garden as a convivial social space. Janet, one of the trustees, pointed out that the centre’s normal activities had ceased following government guidance several months earlier but ‘we have kept the garden open for local residents with strict rules on social distancing’. They rely ‘purely on room hire and fundraising activities’. At present ‘there is no income coming in’ and ‘we don’t get grants’. 

Meanwhile, a community centre on a new-build estate, have been operating an independent food bank. Sam, a committee member, underlined that health, housing and food were ‘the most basic aspects of life’. In this locality, ‘most people coming to food banks are on universal credit’ and, according to Sam, they are ‘self employed on low incomes that aren’t sufficient to cover their costs’. Their policy was that there would be no means test. Meanwhile, donations of money are preferred – rather than odd combinations of non-nutritious items – so that quality food can be distributed.

For him, the reason that Covid-19 had been such a disaster was because ‘for many people affordable secure housing, sufficient nutritious food and decent access to health services was already not part of their world’.

These two vignettes illustrate some modest but important examples of responses to the effects of Covid-19 by local community groups as well as indications of their own organisational fragility. Certainly, Public Health England’s (2020) [1] examination of the pandemic points to the higher risk faced by older people, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups, as well as for those living in deprived areas or in medical and menial employment roles. Local community action groups work closely with many of these groups.

The Outlook

It seems a different era since headlines on the 31st January 2020 read ‘First case of Corona virus confirmed’ [2]. For analysts such as John Gray [3], the arrival of the virus did not represent ‘a shift to small-scale localism’ however he argued that ‘…the hyperglobalisation of the last few decades is not coming back either.’ Gray’s analysis holds echoes of Paul Hirst’s [4] ideals of a local or regional associationalism that sought democratised private and public agencies.

The important support roles of local community action can easily be overlooked. Their multiple voices need to be heard in any post-Covid reappraisals of our social and economic structures. Their practical, social and convivial roles remain a vital contribution at the local level.


[1] Public Health England (2020) Disparities in the risk and outcomes of COVID-19, London: PHE publications.


[2] Burgess, K. (2020) ‘First case of Corona virus confirmed’, The Times; 31 Jan, 2020.


[3] Gray, J. (2020) ‘Why this crisis is a turning point in history’, New Statesman; 1/4/2020.


[4] Hirst, P. (1994) Associative Democracy. New forms of economic and social governance. Cambridge: Polity Press.

NB Names of those interviewed are anonymised at respondents’ request.