Prem Phyak (Chinese University of Hong Kong)
Banner image (above): The Kathmandu Durbar Square heritage site (source: Prem Phyak).
Language plays a critical role in communicating information about the global pandemic to the public. However, nation-states often neglect the issue of linguistic diversity during emergencies. In many countries around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted this problem clearly, and Nepal, a linguistically diverse Himalayan country, demonstrates it clearly. Since Nepal’s first COVID-19 case on 9 January 2020, the government has developed and circulated public service announcements (PSA) about the pandemic in Nepali and English languages. Audio-video materials are in Nepali, while texts such as pamphlets, flyers and posters are in both Nepali and English. The Ministry of Health and Population has translated the English language World Health Organization public service announcements (PSAs) into Nepali and broadcasted them via Radio Nepal and Nepal Television, both state-owned media.
Local communities, radio and TV stations, and citizens have also created their own PSA materials and distributed them through various channels such as Facebook, Twitter, pamphlets, and radio. Public spaces, corner stores, and the streets of major cities like Kathmandu and Lalitpur are covered with banners and notices about public safety. However, especially in the beginning of the lockdown, in March and April, key information about the pandemic was not made available in the minoritized languages. Based on telephone conversations with my family and relatives in rural hill villages in eastern Nepal, I was able to ascertain that these citizens did not receive consistent information. People like my grandmother and uncles/aunties, who could not read and write, were panicking in fear of the virus.
When the government imposed the lockdown on the 24th of March 2020, there were uncertainties about the pandemic. Citizens started leaving cities such as Kathmandu and returned to their home villages for safety. They were confused, and the plethora of information about the pandemic being shared through various channels such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and local radio were not much help. In the chaos that ensued, police used both brutal and innovative measures to manage the lockdown.
Using Indigenous and Minoritized Languages
Although official PSA materials have primarily been distributed in English and Nepali, citizens, including Indigenous people, have developed PSA materials in Indigenous and minoritized languages. On March 20 (4 days before the government imposed lockdown), I first talked to some of my colleagues, such as Amar Tumyahang, Dwarika Thebe, Dipak Tuladhar and Amrit Yonjan-Tamang, about the need for and possibility of developing PSA materials in several of Nepal’s Indigenous languages. I collected information, analysed the content, translated it into Nepali, and developed a text for pamphlets. Amar Tumyahang, who is a Limbu language expert, translated the text into Limbu, the language spoken by the Limbu/Yakthung Indigenous peoples in eastern Nepal. Together, we developed a multimodal poster.
We shared the poster through Facebook, Twitter, Viber and Messenger. At the bottom of the poster, we included an open request, ‘Please also develop awareness-raising materials in local mother tongues to help citizens from all language communities be safe from this virus’. Later, some local FM radio stations aired our PSA. The poster was also converted into a video by a team led by Lila Singak Limbu—a former executive of the Yakthung Chumlung, an umbrella organization of the Limbu Indigenous peoples. I also requested my students and colleagues from across the country to develop audio materials in different languages. One of my students from the Far Western province, Naresh Kunwar, developed audio materials in the Doteli language, the mostly widely-used language in the province.
Indigenous Television is actively working on the issues of the Indigenous peoples in Nepal. Dev Kumar Sunuwar and his colleagues are producing and distributing materials related to land, language, and the cultural rights of Indigenous peoples. Such issues are hardly emphasized in the mainstream media. This television station has produced both audio and video COVID-19 PSA materials in various Indigenous languages, such as Gurung, Tamang, Sunuwar, Newar, Limbu, Uranw, Hyolmo, Magar/Magar Dhut, Tharu, Bantawa Rai, Chamling Rai, Dungmali Rai, Kulung Rai, Sherpa, Thami, and Dhimal.
The citizens themselves have also developed audio PSA materials in their mother tongues and circulated them on social media. Supriya Sthapit, for example, has created a YouTube video that provides comprehensive information about COVID precaution measures and symptoms in Nepal Bhasha (Newar), the language used by the Newars, one of the largest Indigenous communities in Nepal.
The Role of Not-for-profits, NGO, and INGOs
Various non-profit organizations played critical roles to produce PSA materials in local languages. For example, awareness-raising pamphlets have been produced in twenty-one different languages by Sanskriti, a not-for-profit, that ‘aims to engage the youth of Birgunj [a major city in Nepal’s plains] in meaningful ways, inspiring in them a capacity to imagine better futures for themselves, their peers and their societies’. Materials have been produced in Awadhi, Bhojpuri, Dangaura Tharu, Doteli, Hindi, Khas Nepali, Kulung, Koyu Rai, Limbu, Magar Kham, Magar Dhunt, Maithili, Marwari, Morangiya Khawas, Morngiya Tharu, Nepal Bhasha, Paschimi Tharu, Rai Bantawa, Saptariya Tharu, Tamang, and Thulung Rai.
The presence of international aid agencies is strong in Nepal. UN agencies such as UNDP, IOM, and UNICEF have development PSA materials in local languages. For example, UNDP has produced an audio PSA material in one local language, Doteli, which is dominant in Western Nepal. IOM-UN Migration has developed videos in Nepal Bhasha and Nepali. In addition, UNICEF Nepal has developed radio programs in Awadhi, Bhojpuri, Doteli, Mathili, Nepali, and Newar. Save the Children has also created PSA materials in Maithili and Nepali.
Art Meets Languages
During the pandemic, Nepali artists (singers and comedians) have also contributed to public awareness-raising activities through songs. Binaya Karki (MMS Entertainment), for example, developed a song ‘Corona, Corona…’ (on March 20, 2020) which highlights how ‘traas’ (terror) is increasing more than the ‘rog’ (disease) itself. This song, which was trying to communicate that people need not fear if they took precautions, quickly became popular. The song told the public about the dos and don’ts, such as wearing a mask and sanitizing their hands during the pandemic. In another song, the popular folk singer Pashupati Sharma pleads with the public, saying “Please wash your hands well, there is no medicine for corona [virus].” Through his song, he says that “Corona [virus] may come, we should be cautious…” Similarly, a group of popular artists, including Maha-Jodi, Sunil Thapa, Sambujit Baskota, Saroj Khanal, Dipakraj Giri, and Dipashree Niraula, were featured in a video that appeals the public to wash their hands with soap for 20 seconds, and to avoid crowds and wear a mask.
In another song, UNICEF has created a PSA video by adopting a popular song ‘Ke Maayaa Laagcha Ra?’ (Do you love me?), produced by Artmandu, that features Surabina Karki and Mukun Bhusal. The song changes the original words but retains the music. For example, ‘Do you love me?’ is replaced by ‘Do you wash your hands?’ and the reply, ‘ukhumai laagchani’ (too much), is replaced by ‘saabun paanile dhunchu ni’ ([I] wash with soap and water).
Although most PSA materials about COVID-19 are still in Nepali and English (text-based), non-governmental organizations and Indigenous media, organizations, and individuals are promoting Indigenous and minoritized languages to communicate information related to the pandemic to the public. I would define this act as citizen multilingualism: representing linguistic diversity through the activities of citizens. Citizen multilingualism as presented in this blogpost disrupts that linguademic (linguistic pandemic) situation that the COVID-19 has created through the official PSA materials.