This story is part of the “Making a difference” series, in which we shine a spotlight on the many ways—both big and small—that UBC community members are helping with the response to COVID-19. Share your story with us at email@example.com.
UBC medical student Sukhmeet Sachal is delivering public health information to help protect the Sikh community
A two-metre-long sign, illustrating the length of a turban, hangs inside Surrey’s Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara. To the temple’s community members, it perfectly demonstrates what safe physical distancing during COVID-19 looks like.
The simple gesture and message are just one part of the Sikh Health Foundation Initiative, spearheaded by UBC medical student Sukhmeet Sachal.
With the hope of keeping his community safe and preventing the transmission of COVID-19, he set out to tailor public health messages for the Sikh community in a culturally-effective way, starting by connecting with those attending the Gurdwara, located around the corner from the house where he grew up.
“Gurdwara is incredibly important for the well-being of our community, especially the elderly,” says Sachal. “With COVID-19, I saw that there was a huge need to educate people about simple ways to keep themselves and their families safe.”
A community-driven approach
The unique project leverages the strength and spirit of the Sikh community.
Since starting the project this past summer, Sachal and a network of more than 100 volunteers have taken a number of steps to ensure public health measures are introduced to people attending the Gurdwara with cultural awareness in mind.
Together with his team of volunteers, he has distributed hundreds of masks to meet the unique needs people in the South Asian community.
“Because a lot of Sikh people wear turbans, which cover the ears, it can be hard for them to wear masks,” says Sachal. “So, we are distributing masks that tie behind the head, and educating people about how to properly wear them.”
Prior to current restrictions in B.C. and the suspension of in-person faith services, groups of volunteers also greeted people of all ages at the temple to offer guidance around proper handwashing techniques.
“It makes me very happy to see our volunteers putting in their own time and educating everyone on public health measures which will keep us safe,” says 74-year-old Hardeep Singh Ramgarhia, who has been part of the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara community for the last 20 years.
“This pandemic has been a challenge for many, but it gives me hope seeing our youth step up and use their voice for the betterment of the community.”
Sachal has received significant support for this project, becoming just one of two Canadian students to receive the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI U) COVID-19 Student Action Fund grant, as well as funding from the Government of Canada’s Rising Youth Grant.
He also received support from Fraser Health’s South Asian Health Institute (SAHI). They have provided Sachal with guidance on how to recruit and train volunteers and to document the project’s successes and learnings, leaving the door open for future research in this area.
“Working with SAHI has been a blessing,” says Sachal. “The team at Fraser Health provided me with guidance and evidence-based information to ensure that the project will be successful and sustainable.”
Just the beginning
As B.C. continues to contend with the second wave of COVID-19—and after seeing the success of the initial pilot—Fraser Health is supporting Sachal in expanding his initiative to other Gurdwaras in the region.
For Sachal, his drive to help the South Asian community stay safe during the COVID-19 pandemic has only grown stronger. In October, he received devastating personal news—the loss of his own aunt, living in India, to COVID-19.
“It’s so important to get the message out there to all of our elders, and to the broader South Asian population,” says Sachal. “We’ve seen more people wearing masks and real change from this project, which has been very rewarding.”
Eager to expand the impact of his initiative—Sachal says he’s encouraged to see that his work is already inspiring other young leaders in Canada and globally.
“The really exciting thing is that we’re seeing a lot of people who want to get involved and who can help to bring this to other communities,” says Sachal, who is working with young leaders in Alberta and Ontario, and as far away as California and Kenya, to get their own projects up and running.
“This really is just the beginning.”