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An Interpreter’s Role – and Risks – During a Pandemic

As the coronavirus continues to make international headlines, interpreters may be weighing their own personal risks against their need – or ability – to work. Interpreters who operate as independent contractors often work in multiple settings across a variety of sectors, including clinics, businesses, conferences, schools, and other educational facilities. Without paid sick days to fall back on, non-staff interpreters are often tasked with choosing between going without compensation and going into work, thereby putting themselves and others at risk.

Medical interpreters working alongside doctors and other medical professionals to help control the epidemic may feel particularly vulnerable. Typically classified as an occupation related to language or community service rather than medicine, non-staff interpreters rarely receive in-depth training in infection control or industrial safety principles. They may be unaware, therefore, of the specific precautions that are in place to help medical interpreters avoid infection. Medical interpreters are also among the only patient-facing hospital-based workers that are majority independent contractors.

Over the next few weeks and months, interpreters will likely be faced with some tough choices. Here are a few things for everybody to keep in mind as they aim to be proactive about prevention.

Consider Your Circumstances

Many events are cancelled during a pandemic, but interpreters may be asked to fill critical in-person assignments. First and foremost, consider your own circumstances and those of the people you work with when deciding whether to accept in-person assignments. Have you potentially been exposed to someone who has the virus? Have you practiced social distancing wherever possible? Are you more susceptible to the virus? The statistics show that the coronavirus has an overall mortality rate of about 2%, with most deaths occurring in people aged 70 and above. Some preexisting conditions are also linked with higher mortality rates, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, hypertension, and cancer.

If you’re unable to accept face-to-face assignments but still want to work, consider applying to work for agencies that provide remote interpreting. Remote interpreting assignments, such as over-the-phone and video interpreting, have seen a massive increase as the technology to use them becomes more widespread. These types of assignments still allow qualified professional interpreters to accept work and assist where needed, but to do so from the isolation of their own homes.

If you feel you are at a lower risk and are accepting in-person assignments, make sure you’ve taken the necessary precautions to protect yourself and others from other viruses, such as the flu. Symptoms of coronavirus are similar to those of the flu, and according to the CDC, “reducing the number of persons in the United States with seasonal influenza will reduce possible confusion with 2019-nCoV (coronavirus) infection and possible additional risk to patients with seasonal influenza.” So, if you haven’t done so already, be sure to get a flu shot. Hospitals will need all the beds and resources they can get, so it’s important we all do our part to avoid taking up those resources with preventable flu.

Practicing Safe Personal Hygiene

We’ve all heard it: wash your hands, don’t touch your face, and sneeze into the crook of your arm or sleeve. These are good basic practices whether interpreting or not. The coronavirus is transmitted by uncovered coughing and sneezing, as well as personal contact such as shaking hands or touching a contaminated surface followed by touching mouth, nose, or eyes before washing hands. The nails are the most likely places to hide germs, so keep nails short and focus on nails and cuticles when washing hands, always for at least fifteen seconds.

Some precautions specifically for interpreters involve extensive hand hygiene: washing hands when entering and leaving an assignment, as well as washing hands when coming in and going out of any health care facility, when hands are visibly soiled, after toileting, and before eating. In addition, wear clothing that can be easily washed and do not bring personal items – such as your cell phone, keys, makeup, or food and drink – into direct contact with the facilities in which you work or people for whom you interpret. Instead, consider keeping them in a bag or a locker if available.

Medical interpreters may also want to consider being fitted for an N-95 mask and using gloves and gowns while working, but exact PPE requirements depend on the hospital and the situation. As such, it’s best to check with any hospital or medical facility for whom you work on their recommended best practices. For more information on interpreter specific preventative measures, interpreters can check out these recommendations from the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters.

Cultural Competency is More Important Than Ever

Finally, interpreters and the community at large need to practice cultural competency at this sensitive time. Since the outbreak of the coronavirus in December 2019, thousands of incidents of xenophobia directed towards people of East Asian descent or appearance have been reported, and many Asian-American businesses across the county have been forced into financial crises due to a huge reduction in customers.

Thus, it’s important for interpreters to keep in mind that part of what makes them such a vital resource during times of health crises is their ability to communicate clearly while remaining culturally sensitive. That means remembering that it is unethical to refuse to work with patients based on fears or prejudice.

Pandemics create unprecedented levels of instability for the economy, and independent contractors are particularly vulnerable. It remains unclear how long the coronavirus will be disrupting day-to-day routines across the world, but in the interim, the use of technology and acting with an abundance of caution are critical.

If you’re interested in training to become a medical interpreter, ALTA offers online courses to train and qualify medical interpreters. If you need to hire a remote interpreter, please contact us.

Janet Barrow writes about the places where language meets history, culture, and politics. She studied Written Arts at Bard College, and her fiction has appeared in Easy Street and Adelaide Magazine. After two years in Lima, Peru, she recently moved to Chicago.

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