Med student working to spread public health message in Punjabi


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Over the summer, Sukhmeet Singh Sachal, 26, was starting to think the people he saw at his gurdwara in Surrey weren’t getting the message that the pandemic is serious, and people need to take precautions to avoid contracting COVID-19 and spreading it in the community.

“I noticed no one was wearing a mask when they were going inside, and the gurdwara is a place where predominantly elders will go,” said Sachal.

Armed with grant money from the Clinton Foundation and Canada Service Corps, the second-year UBC medical student kicked off the COVID-19 Sikh Gurdwara Initiative — an outreach project that includes distributing masks and educating folks on public health safety during the pandemic in a culturally relevant way.

For the past few weekends, Sachal and a team that has grown to about 100 volunteers have been setting up tables and greeting people at the entrance of Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara, with plans to expand to other gurdwaras in Surrey.

Two volunteers wearing PPE greet people at the door, guide them to a sink where more volunteers are ready to offer thorough hand washing instruction in English, Punjabi or Hindi.

Project co-ordinator Anandita Joshi provides an elderly Sikh man with a bag to store his mask at the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara in Surrey. (Karnbir Randhawa)

Finally, if they aren’t already wearing masks, folks are taken to a station to get a reusable cloth mask that can be tied around a turban. Most masks have straps that loop around one’s ears, but turbans are tied over the ear, making it impossible to wear that type of mask.

Sachal’s group is also creating posters with infographics, based on materials provided by Fraser Health.

“We’re making it more culturally relevant. We’re putting a turban on the person. We’re putting a beard on the person. We’re putting a mask with a tie on the person and we’re making the information in Punjabi,” he said. “We need to get the messaging out in Punjabi.”

Sachal has been reminding Sikh men about the importance of physical distancing. He’s using the length of many turbans — six feet — as an easy way to remember.

A sample of the posters and educational material being distributed by volunteers with the COVID-19 Sikh Gurdwara Initiative shows the importance of hand washing to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (COVID-19 Sikh Gurdwara Initiative)

Sachal said he was motivated to get involved in public outreach, because as a second-year medical student, he couldn’t help with the effort to treat COVID-19 patients in hospitals. 

His work in the gurdwara was already well underway when his family was struck with tragic news, news that would redouble his desire to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 — his aunt in India was killed by the virus on Oct. 12.

“This is something that came as a shock to the entire family,” said Sachal, adding that she was a healthy, 59-year-old woman who was expected to live many more years.

“My cousins lost their mother. I lost my aunt,” he said.

Sachal says the outreach project has led to the education of more than 2,500 people and the distribution of at least 1,000 reusable masks, but he wants to get the message out to many more people in the Fraser Health region.

A woman speaks with a volunteer at the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara while she washes her hands. (Karnbir Randhawa)

The area has had more than its share of COVID-19 transmission, amid a dramatic surge in cases across the entire province.

“Please wear your masks. Please wash your hands all the time. Wash them properly, and lastly, please don’t attend peoples weddings. Don’t attend people’s houses,” said Sachal.

“This virus cannot be seen,” he said. “Let me tell you, when it hits your home, when it hits someone in your family, then you will care, and it will be too late.”


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