Local charities and community groups said on Sunday that language barriers were a big hindrance in the earliest days of the coronavirus pandemic, as some members of ethnic minorities weren’t immediately given proper health advice and warnings.

Several groups spoke about the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the city’s ethnic minority population during an online seminar jointly hosted by Caritas and the Equal Opportunities Commission, on the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

A social worker from Caritas, Ansah Majeed Malik, said that at the beginning of last year, the majority of information about the coronavirus was in Chinese and English only, which made it difficult for some ethnic minority groups to understand.

“There was a lot of issues with interpretation, with translating materials,” she said. “We had a lot of medical information from hospitals… but ethnic minorities only received selected information.”

“If we have translated versions and if we do these preparation a bit earlier, or at the same time we have interpretation and translation, it helps a lot.”

She said there had also been an assumption that authorities would have been aware of the needs of Muslims who were quarantined while observing Ramadan, during which adherents fast between sunrise and sunset.

“I feel Hong Kong is so multicultural, we are supposed to know all these things,” she said. “A little bit of cultural awareness after all these years it should be here… in the future, I hope it won’t happen again.”

Several other speakers at the online seminar, “Looking Beyond the Pandemic”, also spoke of the devastating toll the pandemic has had on businesses run by ethnic minorities, and on the education of ethnic minority students.

EOC member Rizwan Ullah added that local ethnic minority members needed to be more proactive and speak out against communities being blamed for spreading the disease.

“If I had a time machine to go back, during those incidents, I think our community sometimes has to be more united together, I think we can give the right pressure to the right group of people to take rightful action, so at the end of the day no one gets victimised in these extraordinary times,” he said.

Ricky Chu, chairperson of the Equal Opportunities Commission, said the pandemic had brought into focus racial divides and injustices that continue to exist.

Looking forward, he said he hoped people would be able to see the contribution ethnic minorities make to Hong Kong, and how they could help the city recover from the pandemic.

“My message to the ethnic minority community, especially the youth, would be to use this period of learning and rebuilding to sharpen their skills and equip themselves to participate equally in Hong Kong’s economy,” Chu said.

“Acquiring Chinese-language skills must be seen as a priority,” he added, saying the EOC would continue to urge the government to “do better” with its ‘Chinese as a second language’ policy in schools.