Rapid antigen tests present language barriers in Australia


Do you know what steps to take after a rapid antigen test for COVID-19 comes back positive?

A lot of people don’t — and that can become even more problematic when you throw a language barrier into the mix. 

According to a recent report from the Australian Broadcasting Company (ABC), community health advocates have been calling on improved language accessibility for rapid antigen tests, most of which only provide instructions in English and generally lack translations into other languages spoken widely throughout the country.

According to ABC, a recent shift in quarantine and isolation rules in the Australian state of Victoria has led residents to rely more on rapid home tests for COVID-19, rather than the more accurate, yet more time-consuming, PCR tests, which are typically administered by a healthcare professional. In the majority of cases, however, the rapid antigen tests only come with English directions, which makes them difficult to access for individuals who are not proficient in English. 

Activists are currently calling on the Australian government to improve language access by providing translations into non-English languages or even providing instructive pictograms that allow individuals to figure out how to test themselves without necessitating literacy in any language.

“One thing we want the government to do is to take a sample and do a general pictogram that would communicate the steps that are required to actually use these rapid antigen test kits,” Dr. Michael Akindeju told ABC. “Pictograms typically would convey or communicate better universally to a wide range of people.”

Language as a barrier to accessing rapid antigen tests

Additionally, some community health leaders believe that the government’s messaging needs to be more accessible for individuals with limited English proficiency. Zahraa Taher, an Afghan-Australian community health leader, told ABC that many Afghans living in Australia struggle with English and are left in the dark when it comes to accessing the tests.

“Most struggle with English, so they don’t even know about the rapid antigen tests,” said Taher. “Even if they do, they don’t know where to access them. … It’s been a stressful time for everyone. But when you have a language barrier, it becomes harder and harder.”

In the United States

Australia is not the only country to struggle with language barriers during the COVID-19 pandemic. As MultiLingual has reported throughout the pandemic, local government agencies in the United States have been responsible for numerous blunders in translation and language accessibility when it comes to public health information. 

With President Biden’s administration recently opting to provide U.S. residents with free rapid antigen tests to take at home, it’s worth noting that the White House has made information about receiving these tests available in English, Spanish, and Mandarin Chinese, which are by far the most widely spoken languages throughout the country.

Still, it’s unclear whether speakers of languages like Tagalog and Vietnamese — which are also spoken by a significant portion of the country’s population — who struggle with limited English proficiency will be able to easily access their rapid antigen tests.

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Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner is a writer from Sacramento. He received his B.A. in linguistics and English from UCLA and is currently working toward an M.A. in applied linguistics at Columbia University. His writing has been published in Language Magazine, Sactown Magazine, and The Takeout.

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