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When Cutchogue resident Rony Lopez started having chest pain and difficulty breathing, after a couple days of having fever and a “weird-sounding” dry cough, he figured it was time to seek help. 

He had been hearing about this highly infectious virus that had spread like wildfire from Asia to Europe to America, and even though he didn’t exactly know if it was present in the North Fork, or even Suffolk County, his symptoms, as described on the Spanish television channel Univision he regularly tunes in to, seemed to fit. 

The problem Lopez was facing though was where to go and who to call for information. 

Lopez, a 30-year-old landscaping worker who resides in Cutchogue, immigrated from Guatemala a few years ago, and with long hours at work and little resources, never had a chance to learn English, although not for lack of trying. 

He first tried searching for information on his phone. He typed in “coronavirus” and “Cutchogue.” A list of news articles, press releases and videos came up. None were in Spanish. He then typed “coronavirus” and “Suffolk, Long Island.” Same result. Exhausted, sick and unable to find any information in the area in Spanish, he remembered that a friend of his was volunteering at Rural Migrant Ministry in Riverhead, a nonprofit organization that advocates for rural and migrant communities. 

His friend, upon learning of Lopez’s condition, called me. 

After talking to Lopez, and hearing about his labored breathing and symptoms, I told him to self-isolate and call the local clinic in Greenport or Riverhead, where, I had learned through my reporting, testing kits were available and people without insurance could go. 

The next day, Lopez went to Greenport. He tested positive for COVID-19. 

When he called me again, he thanked me, told me he had hunkered down at the room he rents with a big bottle of Tylenol and was hoping to get better soon. 

I wished him the best and told him to call the clinic again if his condition worsened.

But why did Lopez called me? Why couldn’t he find information in Spanish on where to go or what to do locally?

“There was no information for our community in Spanish,” Lopez said in an interview. “I felt confused and scared, nobody could explain anything to me, or where to go, I was all alone in my room fearing the worst.”

“Don’t they realize we are all together in this?,” Lopez added. “We all need to know what to do.”

As a bilingual reporter, and native Spanish speaker, I have come to know many in the Latino community on the East End. They trust I will be able to give them straight information on what is going on, and they know I will never lie or distort facts. In my time as a reporter, I have heard it all, from trivial to heartbreaking, I have always tried to listen actively and help where I can—from parents calling me to talk to their children’s teachers and questions about where to find a car insurance agent that speaks Spanish, to people not being paid for their work or agonized wives pleading with me to help them reach their recently deported husband.

However, this time is different.  

Having information in a person’s own language that will help them navigate their lives is crucially important during normal times, but in the midst of a pandemic, is literally a matter of life and death. 

Also, it is the law. 

In 2012 Suffolk County executive Steve Bellone signed an order that directed all executive agencies in county government to follow state and federal policies already in place and provide direct public services to offer language assistance services (translation and interpretation) to people of Limited English Proficiency based on census data, which determines which six languages other than English are the most used in the county.

“Suffolk County government is here to serve all our residents,” Bellone said at the time.

In 2018, The Suffolk County Legislature passed a language access bill that codified Bellone’s executive order into law. It became effective in January of 2019.

However, even though there are laws at the federal, state and county levels making language access a right, it seems that in times of crisis it becomes almost optional, and that, is unacceptable. 

The Trump Administration translated their two-page document “The President’s Coronavirus Guidelines for America,”this past Wednesday, a long time after the start of this pandemic, and only because members of congress and community advocates complained, according to Buzz Feed News. 

New York State has translated some information on their website, but not all. When you click on “Translate” on the NYS Department of Health website, everything appears to be translated, but then when you click on any given link and it takes you to documents that may or may not be translated. Press releases that are in Spanish seem to have been translated by an automated service and are barely comprehensible. An example:

The first few lines of the press release from Sunday reads: 

“El consejo personal, esto no es real. Trato de presentar los hechos. Intento presente todo lo que sé. Trato de presentar hechos imparciales. Trato de los números presentes porque la gente necesita información. Al llegar ansioso, cuando llegue miedo, cuando no se obtiene la información o duda de la información, o si piensa que la gente no sabe lo que están hablando, o si piensa que está recibiendo mentido, así que los hechos presentes ”

Which is roughly translated to:

“The personal advice, that is not real. I try to present facts. I try present all I know. I try to present impartial facts. I try of the present numbers because people need information. When arrive anxious, when arrive fear, when does not obtain the information or doubt of the information, or if you think that people don’t know what are they talking about, or if you think that you are receiving lied, so the present facts.”

Clear on that? I don’t think so. 

Out of curiosity I called the NYS Novel Coronavirus Hotline this morning to see if maybe people could call and hear the information in Spanish or other languages. A message pops up, asking you to select from a menu of three options, a minute into the call I still had not received a prompt that asked me to press or say anything if I wanted information “en español.” I moved on anyway, pretending I didn’t speak any English and just randomly pressed the number one. Another message came up, also in English, that I had a wait time between 214 and 225 minutes. I hung up. 

In Suffolk, the situation is even more dire. The Suffolk County Government website still has not translated — or posted—any of the county’s press releases in regards to COVID-19 (or at least I couldn’t find them after spending an hour on their site.) The only link for information in Spanish, and Chinese, is a button that redirects people to the CDC’s website, which has information translated. 

The county’s Hispanic Advisory Board started posting on their Facebook page—which has 227 followers— some information in Spanish on Thursday. 

According to DATA USA—a project of M.I.T. Media Lab that takes information from the US Census Bureau, the Bureau of Labor Statistic and other agencies and combines them to present “a comprehensive visualization of public data“— the three most common languages spoken in Suffolk out of 1.48 million total residents, after English, are: Spanish (196,500 speakers or 13.2%,) Chinese (13,937 speakers or 0.94%) and Italian (10,991 speakers or 0.74%.) There are of course other pockets of non-English speakers, from Creole to Polish. 

If almost 15% of Suffolk’s population is not getting the information they need on COVID-19 or able to access resources, wouldn’t that affect all county residents as a whole? Shouldn’t this be a priority?

This is not a time for politics (a phrase used by almost everybody nowadays it seems,) but a time to unite in our common goal to stop this pandemic.

Right now, due to the lack of information in Spanish or other languages, community advocates, nonprofit organizations and grassroots efforts are popping up everywhere in Suffolk County, and are translating and doing graphics on their own, hosting Facebook lives, organizing to talk to local governments, looking for resources, sharing informational videos from Spain and other Spanish-speaking countries, and more, however, it is not enough. Something as important as having the right tools and information in the midst of a pandemic, where everybody’s wellbeing depends not only on oneself, but on the collective, is critical and necessary.

“We are all safer as a community if we act together and know the same things,” Lopez said. “Isn’t the important thing to stop the spread of this virus?”

I completely agree. 

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María del Mar is a contributor to RiverheadLOCAL and the editor and founder of Tu Prensa Local, a Spanish-language local news outlet on Long Island. Maria has won several awards for her work, including a first place best column award from the New York Press Association. Email Maria