During the pandemic, the wearing of masks has introduced a new, unexpected challenge for the estimated 10 000 hearing-impaired people in Belarus: the inability to read lips. With this key means of understanding the world suddenly denied to them, many deaf people have found themselves both frustrated and isolated.
This problem has proven to be particularly acute when deaf people have needed to visit health centres, where it has been difficult – and sometimes impossible – for them to understand what doctors and nursing staff are saying, and to explain their health issues. Many deaf people only read lips and use sign language, and under normal circumstances might be accompanied by an interpreter, who would speak on their behalf. However, with the pandemic, most of these interpreters are now having to work remotely, due to the risks of catching COVID-19.
To help overcome this communication obstacle, the WHO Country Office in Belarus trialled the use of a tablet computer in a Minsk translation office, giving deaf patients in the city a central “hub” through which they could quickly get a sign-to-speech translation service. By placing a video call to interpreters from their own mobile phones, deaf patients can have their health problem explained to doctors, while doctors can ensure that necessary treatments are understood by the patient – all without interpreters needing to travel unnecessary distances and put themselves at risk of COVID-19 infection.
Following the successful trial, 25 tablets were purchased for translation offices across Belarus, thanks to funding from the European Union’s Eastern Partnership COVID-19 Solidarity Programme.
Dr Masoud Dara, Special Representative of the WHO Regional Director to Belarus/Head of the WHO Country Office in Belarus said of the initiative: “Technical means allow us to hold various consultations and events remotely, and we should use these opportunities as much as possible. Nobody should be left out of the pandemic response – and that also applies to people in the deaf community”.