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Remote communication is crucial during COVID

Remote communication is essential during COVID-19 - but phone lines are clogged. What’s the answer?

COVID-19 has forced businesses and their employees into lockdown - not once but now twice. For many, that means working remotely. For others, jobs are lost.

It is a frustrating and confusing time for all Australians, but there is one group receiving less attention: those who are not proficient in the English language. With 3.5% of the population speaking limited English (2016 Census) and almost a quarter of us speaking a language other than English at home - there is large potential for misunderstanding.

Helplines are stretched - some crashing

In May we wrote about the huge influx of calls Lifeline was receiving for mental health services (a 28% increase in April). The same is happening for Government services and healthcare providers. Victoria’s Coronavirus Hotline crashed in March, reportedly receiving 5000 calls in a single day - with some people waiting up to an hour on hold.

The real issue is what this means for those most vulnerable. The Conversation reported in August that “people with limited English may be at an increased risk of COVID-19 because they don’t have the language and literacy skills to understand and respond to pandemic-related information”. Even functional helplines have their own downsides, with interpreters required for non-English speakers, often supplied by a separate dial-in service. Then there is the potential for poor audio connections, or difficulties for those who are hard-of-hearing.

Messaging platforms are the answer

A dependable messaging service, accessible to everyone, is crucial. McKinsey research (below) states that one operator can answer 8 calls per hour, versus hold 60 messaging conversations in the same timeframe.

Further, messaging allows for a technology that phone calls cannot: automatic translation to-and-from English. This means that an English speaking operator can converse directly with a non-English speaking person.

While messaging services have been traditionally used extensively by hospitality and airlines (SMS doesn’t require an internet connection - important for overseas travelling), it’s also seeing an increase in outbound marketing by retailers. And with 91% of Australians owning a smartphone, consumers can communicate with businesses via Facebook Messenger and Whatsapp too.

Bring messaging to Government and Healthcare services

David Hayes, founder of messaging platform Jeeves.Plus, has received interest from local Government in utilising messaging to communicate with Australians - with translation being a crucial part of it. “We want to provide a solution that gives access to essential Government guidelines and healthcare information to those most vulnerable” says David.

“This is both non-English speakers and the elderly, who also require remote access to information, and may be hard-of-hearing; making phone calls redundant”.

“Forgetting internet access, everyone has SMS on their phone and could be accessing information in this format. It’s simple for organisations to implement, and for consumers to utilise” he adds.

What’s next for helplines?

It goes without saying that beyond COVID the language barrier for many will still exist in Australia. But time-pressure presents an opportunity for both businesses and local governments to utilise messaging translation for enhanced communication, and free up helpline operators to engage with more of the community.

The end-goal is to ensure all those in Australia can access the information they need to make informed decisions about their health, work, and family; crucial basics we English natives may take for granted, but for many others are inaccessible.


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