As part of the School of Advanced Study’s ‘Open for Discussion’ series, the Institute of Modern Languages Research is holding two public events on 22 and 27 April to debate the lessons that can be learned by looking beyond our borders and languages. The first, ‘Covid-19, International Perspectives and Transnational Collaboration’, explores the need for a joint transnational effort to enable us to respond efficiently and decisively to the threat of an illness that knows no borders; the second, ‘Languages and the Pandemic: Public Health Engagement with Multilingual Communities in the UK’, probes to what extent national and local responses to the pandemic can more effectively address the complex needs of multilingual communities in the UK. Joseph Ford, from the Institute of Modern Languages Research, previews these events below.

In the early days of the pandemic, media narratives portrayed the arrival of the coronavirus as ‘new’ and ‘unexpected’, something we could never have planned for. Yet, many countries and public health authorities around the world did see the virus coming.

As East Asian and Pacific countries managed to successfully suppress the virus with extensive testing and contact tracing measures, cases in the UK began to increase exponentially. The UK prime minister, Boris Johnson – soon to be struck down by the virus himself – regularly spoke of the UK’s ‘world beating’ response to the pandemic. But, while the UK’s vaccination programme has without doubt been very successful, the initial political and public health response is much more open to criticism. Little preventative action was taken in those early months of 2020 when the virus was making its way across the world. And it is clear that opportunities were missed to learn lessons from those countries encountering the virus before it came to these shores.

Fast-forward to spring 2021: vaccination shortages highlight the extent to which the UK is part of a multi-lateral, international effort, to design, produce and supply vaccines to its population. As vaccine nationalism rears its ugly head, and smouldering tensions over vaccine exports and distribution reveal the problematic relationship between the UK and its EU neighbours, only transnational dialogue and collaboration can lead to a sustainable and mutually beneficial handling of the situation.

Of course, in a crisis such as this, governments and local authorities are essential to any effective public health response, but it is equally important to understand the experiences and responses of communities and people at the sharp end of the crisis. Research has shown that the virus both reveals and exacerbates pre-existing inequalities and intensifies the effects of poverty, structural racism and linguistic exclusion among already marginalised communities.

In his 2020 report on the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority groups in the UK, the director of Public Health London, Professor Kevin Fenton, praised the work of voluntary and community sector organisations for their role in ‘communicating culturally sensitive and language appropriate messaging, as trusted allies, and as a bridge to statutory services’.

Fenton makes several recommendations for stakeholders, including the need for greater engagement with multilingual communities and translation between languages spoken by these communities. A clear issue here is that local and national governments are not always trusted by multilingual communities. And, while some official information is now offered in translation, much of the initial work of translating into other languages was carried out by charitable bodies, such as Doctors of the World, or the Coalition of Latin Americans in the UK.

The lack of attention to multilingual communities in the UK demonstrates the relative invisibility of language as a crucial medium of public health communication. The point is that multilingualism is a social reality in the UK, but policymakers repeatedly fail to acknowledge this fact.

We will be exploring these points in depth across two panel discussions on 22 and 27 April, involving academics from modern languages, area studies and linguistics from the UK and abroad, as well as public health researchers, representatives from cultural institutions and community organisations. As part of this, some of our panellists have offered some initial thoughts in their areas of expertise.

The questions of trust and community engagement are at the centre of our panellist Dr Leon Rocha’s reflections on the situation in Hong Kong. With confidence in the city’s political leadership at an all-time low, Rocha asks how Hong Kong has managed so effectively to control the spread of the virus. Whereas, in the UK, community groups have come to support people after the descent into a public health crisis, Rocha recounts how recent political movements, combined with people’s longstanding scepticism of Hong Kong’s public health authorities, led to a community mobilisation that pressured the government into closing the borders.

Similarly concerned with the question of community engagement, Dr Nelson Mlambo, from the University of Namibia, underlines how involving communities in decision-making and effectively translating information into indigenous languages saves lives. In a crisis such as this, there is a clear need to share and integrate Western and indigenous forms of knowledge in transnational collaborations – and language is the ‘key enabler’ here.

Repeated periods of lockdown have brought significant challenges for people and communities who have had to either choose between work and health or lost work because of the economic fallout of the pandemic. Many others have experienced illness, extended periods of time alone, and been unable to grieve lost relatives. Whatever our individual experiences of the effects of the pandemic and the restrictions, it is clear that, as we move out of this period of lockdowns, things will change. As another panellist, Professor Astrid Erll, points out, previous assumptions around the inevitability of climate change, economic injustice and global health inequality no longer appear as impossible to challenge as they once did.

If we trace the roots of the word to its Ancient Greek meaning, we see that a ‘crisis’ is a moment of ‘intense difficulty’, but also a ‘turning point’ in time. While it is important not to forget the immense struggle the pandemic has represented – for some much more than others – we might, as Erll suggests, see this as a moment for reflection and discussion about the old habits we wish to change in order to more effectively turn towards tackling the challenges we face in the future.

Further aspects to be explored in the two upcoming events include perspectives from Latin America, reports from Citizens UK and Healthwatch Islington, and more. For the full programme and to register for these online events, see here and here.