Community care: South Asian advocates step up to increase COVID-19 awareness

Dec 15 2020, 9:51 pm

This is the final article of a four-part series examining the impacts of COVID-19 on the South Asian community in Metro Vancouver.


Over the past few months, there have been a number of advocates, frontline workers, and organizations within the South Asian community in Metro Vancouver and across Canada mobilizing to provide culturally relevant awareness to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Whether it be through social media or in-person efforts, the motivation remains the same: to come together as a community and care for one another.

Second-year UBC medical student Sukhmeet Singh Sachal wanted to show that care for the congregation at his local gurdwara in Surrey.

South Asian COVID-19

COVID-19 Sikh Gurdwara Initiative founder Sukhmeet Sachal/COVID-19 Sikh Gurdwara Initiative

Sachal told Daily Hive he was concerned at the beginning of the pandemic when he noticed that some members of the congregation visiting Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara in Surrey were not wearing masks.

“That was a huge concern for me because most of the people who go to the gurdwara are our elders. So I was like, how can we protect them during this time while still allowing them to maintain their spiritual health and mental health, because the gurdwara is more like a hub for our elders,” he said.

How a turban can help people visualize physical distancing

Sachal was motivated to find ways to connect to members of his gurdwara community in order to communicate pandemic safety in a culturally relevant way.

In August, Sachal was one of two Canadians chosen from 38 applicants around the world to receive a grant from the Clinton Foundation. The money was to be used to develop a project to help the recipients’ communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sachal used his funds to develop the COVID-19 Sikh Gurdwara Initiative. The project had three main goals: to encourage the congregation to wear masks, to promote hand washing, and to increase physical distancing efforts.

When patrons walk into the gurdwara, volunteers guide them on how to wash their hands properly for 20 seconds. “We’ve noticed since when we started, more people are coming in [and] washing their hands, which has been great for us to see,” said Sachal.

South Asian COVID-19

Volunteer coordinator Tavleen Ramgharia educating an elderly woman about washing her hands/COVID-19 Sikh Gurdwara Initiative

As for masks, Sachal explains there needed to be some customization done in order to ensure masks fit comfortably for individuals who wear turbans.

“A lot of Sikh men who wear turbans, including myself, can’t really tie the normal masks around our ears,” he explained.

To solve this problem, volunteers made masks that would extend to fit around a turban. The masks were distributed to gurdwara visitors, and Sachal says his team demonstrated how to put them on properly and how to wash and store them.

South Asian COVID-19

A woman helping her son with a mask provided by volunteers (COVID-19 Sikh Gurdwara Initiative)

As for physical distancing, Sachal says he noticed that stickers on the gurdwara floor marking a two-metre distance were not being seen.

“So my team and I, we came up with an idea basically creating a huge cardboard cutout where we had a man and a woman holding a turban,” he said.

“So the process of typing a turban is when you pull apart a turban, and my turban, for instance, is six feet long, so we’re perfectly working with the messaging.”

South Asian COVID-19

Volunteers stand by a sign showing the length of a turban (6 ft.) for social distancing/COVID-19 Sikh Gurdwara Initiative

Sachal says the visual representation is key.

“So as soon as they walk inside the gurdwara, that’s the first thing that they saw, and we realize that this is actually starting to have a better impact because people can visually see what six feet is instead of reading it on the ground.”

For Sachal, the implementation of culturally sensitive messaging has shown its impact on how it resonates with the congregation.

“I think what Dr. Bonnie Henry is doing is absolutely great. She’s creating these daily briefings for the general public to listen to her speak about these things,” he said.

“But I think now it needs to be trickled down more [to] target specific populations and specific people in the communities who are not getting this messaging.”

Sachal and his team of 100 young South Asian volunteers are currently working on expanding the program to other gurdwaras across the country.

Group focuses on creating a dialogue with international students

To reach out to Metro Vancouver’s younger international student population, Gurleen Sidhu and her fellow volunteers at Team We Care are relying on the power of building conversation and connection through social media.

In the past year, the online network has grown to include thousands of new students across Canada and focuses on helping them find jobs, accommodation, and mentorship opportunities.

Sidhu told Daily Hive that Team We Care has been working on outreach with students on Facebook and Instagram in order to provide translations and updates regarding COVID-19 protocols.

She says Team We Care volunteers ramped up their outreach following Halloween, when crowds of partiers flocked to Granville Street in downtown Vancouver despite pleas from health officials to stay home.

Sidhu explains that what followed was a wave of online hate towards the Indian international student community here in Metro Vancouver, with some comments suggesting that they be deported and have their Visas cancelled.

She says she is aware that some of the young people in the crowd may have been students, but she emphasizes that the community as a whole “does not appreciate [the] type of behaviour” that compromises any health and safety orders.

The discussions around Halloween led to Team We Care feeling strongly that “something should be done” to further reach out to the student population about COVID-19 and the gathering restrictions, said Sidhu.

Team We Care coordinators appeared on multiple Punjabi radio programs and increased the messaging on their social channels.

“We have been posting regularly on COVID. Whatever guidelines are coming, they are in the group,” said Sidhu, adding that the emphasis placed on starting conversations will also be passed on to students and their friend groups to create further awareness.

“Instead of trying to criticize the other person, we can try to create a dialogue, try to talk with them and communicate with other people as much as we can and that we don’t want to appreciate this behaviour at any point.”

South Asian COVID Task Force

Formed only a few weeks ago, another online organization has managed to create and engage in a dialogue with South Asian communities across Canada by utilizing a range of social media outreach strategies.

The South Asian COVID Task Force is a grassroots collective consisting of South Asian Canadian medical professionals working together to provide culturally centred messaging around COVID-19 protocols and safety measures.

Created by physicians in Ontario in response to rising cases amongst that city’s South Asian population, the task force quickly grew to include South Asian healthcare experts from across the country. The organization now has two growing Instagram pages that relay pertinent COVID-19 information to communities in PunjabiHindi, Tamil, Bengali, Gujarati, Telugu, Malayalam, and Kannada.

Dr. Madhu Jawanda, a Vancouver-based family doctor who has worked in Surrey for over 20 years, is part of the task force’s BC initiative.

She says the organization overall is “very happy” with how public health has handled the COVID-19 virus in terms of messaging and their aim is to “contribute from a humanitarian point of view, just as good Canadians to help curb the pandemic in any way we can.”

Since November 18, the task force has been translating COVID-19 orders and information into multiple South Asian languages such as Punjabi and Hindi and sharing easy-to-follow infographics.

The group is also using its platform to feature South Asian healthcare workers, influencers, and advocates sharing messages and skits about COVID-19 safety in a culturally relevant manner.

One video, for instance, depicts two women sitting in a break room at work. One woman comes in not wearing her mask, and her fellow employee explains in Punjabi why she needs to keep her mask on.

Another video shows a scenario between a family where the grandmother wants to go visit another family to drop off a gift, which then leads to important advice from her daughter and granddaughter telling her why she needs to stay home.

It’s this kind of messaging that resonates with the diverse groups within the South Asian community as a whole, said Jawanda, adding that the task force is “definitely trying to make everyone feel included,” especially the older generation.

“That’s a very key part of it because they do live in multigenerational households, so I think a lot of the information is passed on through radio and TV and their own children and grandchildren. So we’re communicating, and I think it’s also important to speak in the language that they can understand so it’s more of a direct message [and] there’s less error for misunderstandings,” said Jawanda.

She notes that although the task force has only been up and running for a few weeks, it’s gaining traction, and the feedback from the broader community has been “positive.”

“I’ve only heard thank-yous that we’ve made [messaging] more accessible and created more awareness around it,” she said.

“This is a very quick evolving project and so we’re trying to really just reach out. So we’re learning as we go and we’re trying to be inclusive of everyone.”

Simran SinghSimran Singh

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