Meet the UBC med student helping to translate public health info for racialized communities

In light of COVID-19, UBC medical student Sukhmeet Singh Sachal has created public health campaigns to inform racialized communities about COVID-19.

As society has adapted to physical distancing, wearing masks and constantly using hand sanitizer or washing hands, many also struggle to understand the public health messaging that is being put in front of us everyday.

“COVID-19 just took everyone by storm and people didn’t really know what to do. We saw our physicians who are working day and night in the hospitals, trying to protect people. That’s when I knew I wanted to do something,” Sachal said.

Inspired to make an impact in racialized communities, Sachal works on two projects: Translations 4 Our Nations and the COVID-19 Sikh Gurdwara Initiative.

Translations 4 Our Nations is led by Sachal and medical and public health students from Harvard and the University of Toronto. Together, the four students recruited over 120 Indigenous translators from around the world to create COVID-19 information in their specific languages, and within a span of a few months they managed to provide information to over 30 countries, which Sachal said in turn impacted over 10,000 people.

Sachal also created the COVID-19 Sikh Gurdwara Initiative to provide adjusted ways for people to worship while protecting themselves from COVID-19. The initiative began one day when Sachal went to the gurdwara, a Sikh house of worship, with his dad. When he arrived, he noticed that many of the people were not wearing masks and were not standing two metres apart.

To solve this problem, Sachal successfully applied for a grant by the Clinton Foundation. The grant allowed him to gain the funding to implement the project and provide public health information to the Sikh community in a way that is culturally relevant.

“We really focused on three things, which are hand hygiene, masks and physical distancing,” said Sachal.

When putting these three things into action, Sachal noticed that a lot of Sikh men wear turbans. “I realized that myself as well I wear a turban. And the regular masks that everyone else wears, they can’t fit around a turban because our ears are covered by the turban,” said Sachal. “I had to devise new masks made by community members.”

The masks have extra-long strings tied at the ends so that people can tie them around their turban, allowing them to practice their religion while protecting themselves from COVID-19.

However, designing the new masks was not the hardest task. In fact, Sachal said physical distancing was the most challenging part of the project because it is human nature to be close to each other.

The infographic shows two people holding a turban stretched six feet apart.
The infographic shows two people holding a turban stretched six feet apart. Courtesy Karnbir Randhawa

“We like to give each other hugs,” he said. “Because of COVID, none of this can be done now and so we really tried to teach people that you need to stay at least six feet apart with your masks on.”

This led to the idea of creating an infographic where two people hold a turban stretched six feet apart.

“I realized that all it took was trying to make it culturally relevant and making sure that people can visualize it, because a lot of times people don’t have the health literacy like me or you might have,” he said.

According to Sachal, this was a way for people who might not speak English or Punjabi, and who may have a lower health literacy, to be able to visualize and understand what physical distancing is.

“If we continue to go towards a way where we can provide more culturally effective care for people in the healthcare system, I think we can really help better health outcomes for everyone.”