Come together: Local communities collaborate in translating COVID-19 awareness campaigns into various native dialects and sign language

By Eve Bandusena | Writer for Parents Avenue

All images via Viviantie Sarjuni

Flattening the curve through the power of our rakyat

Meet Viviantie Sarjuni, the spearhead behind the #StayAtHome campaign in Sabah who raised efforts in involving our local communities to translate native dialects including sign language throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

The #StayAtHome campaign has successfully been interpreted close to 50 native dialects including sign language.

“The objective of the #StayAtHome campaign is to get people to understand it is our collective effort and civic duty to break the chain of COVID-19 by staying at home,” Viviantie asserts.

“When the first COVID-19 hit Sabah, I was left speechless,” she says.

“I thought it would never hit our country when I first heard about it. When the MCO was announced, I felt the world stopped spinning. Businesses stopped, schools stopped. However, one thing I realized that shouldn’t stop is flattening the curve of COVID-19.”

Viviantie expresses her gratitude to her key collaborators, the power of the people. As Sabahans began pouring in and doing their part to further her cause, surprisingly she received additional help from different states too.

“I had people from Semenanjung Malaysia and Sarawak joining the campaign too. It was very heart-warming and one of the best times in my life seeing people unite and work for the same vision.”

How the #StayAtHome campaign started

Viviantie relays it was a Whatsapp conversation with a friend that got the ball rolling.

The question of the lack of diversity in the languages used in the awareness campaigns came up. Most of the languages used to convey the information have been predominantly Bahasa Melayu and English.

“If the rural communities receive this information, will they be able to understand it?”

“And, how about the stateless community? They have poor living conditions and if COVID-19 reached their area, it would be tremendously devastating,” she says.

“So, my friend and I were bouncing ideas on how else we can do to ensure everyone gets the right information and understand the implication if they did not oblige to the MCO.”

The mission was to translate these campaigns into as many native dialects in Sabah as possible including sign language through writing formats that are easily accessible through social media or chat apps such as Telegram and Whatsapp.

“Following that, I made a public post on Facebook, stated my phone number, and explained about the campaign. I prepared a standard script so people can translate it to their native languages,” Viviantie says.

“A few close friends supported the campaign, their Facebook timelines were full of the videos, translation. Their phones were beeping non-stop! And, that is how the ripple effect started. We even went beyond our network, as the campaign needed to reach the mass.”

The main concerns when COVID-19 hit the vulnerable communities

Viviantie opens up about Sabah’s rich multicultural identity and how the usage of only two main languages puts rural communities at risk as Sabah is home to a jaw-dropping 42 ethnicities and 200 sub ethnicities.

“Through my work with rural communities, some of them are still communicating in the native language and they don’t have access to information,” she explains.

“What we are facing now is a pandemic, which means everyone will be affected. Hence, why communication is crucial in reaching each and every one of us in every possible medium.”

Another major concern for Vivantie is the stateless population in Sabah who face the hard-hitting reality of going through many discriminative barriers in receiving basic resources such as healthcare and clean running water.

“The daily wage earners can’t earn money during PKP. The stateless, if they are sick, can’t go to the hospital because, in their heads, police will arrest them for not having documents, not to mention poor living conditions that make it easier for the virus to spread,” she adds.

With her consistent experience of working with the stateless community for three years, Viviantie knew that if COVID-19 reached their area, it would pose a huge problem to Sabah.

“They don’t have proper sanitization areas; they don’t have soap or shampoo as these are luxury items not to mention poor antibodies. I have visited a family that lives with another two more families in the same house sharing the same area without any rooms. You can imagine the rate this virus can spread.”

But according to Viviantie, there’s good news, there are solutions to these problems provided by the government and NGOs. It’s just that communication is not transparent to the communities at risk.

The #StayAtHome campaign also reaches a community that is marginally forgotten, the deaf and mute community.

“The idea to come up with sign language came from my friend, Bella. She learned sign language and offered to make a short video of #StayAtHome. Oftentimes, we forget about these people who are deaf and mute.”

“They can read but having someone who can communicate in their sign language means significantly more to them.”

Receiving an overwhelmingly positive response from our local communities


“I felt so happy, so proud of our rakyat. I can feel the love travel from one person to another through working on our campaigns although everyone is trapped at home,” she says.

“I have a friend Farah, who’s of Suluk descent. I asked her help to translate it to the Suluk language. She did it with a few friends and forwarded it to the community leaders of the stateless,” says Viviantie.

“They said they knew nothing about the virus until the video came to them. And they were very thankful for that.”

Ending the interview, Viviantie shares why inclusivity and the act of altruism need to be placed as a priority and applied across race, culture, and regardless of documented status or not.

“It’s 2020 and whether it is COVID-19 or not, we need to be human first. Be kind to one another. No one is superior to another. And when we can overcome this challenge, then only we can achieve any objectives or purpose as one, be it during a pandemic or not.”