Voices from the community: Contributing to the fight against COVID-19

As they say, every crisis brings with it a new opportunity to adapt and grow. Here are some diverse voices from the community sharing their own unique stories in these pandemic times.

Dr. Harpreet Singh Bajaj, Endocrinologist and Director of LMC Healthcare, Canada

Dr. Harpreet Singh Bajaj is very invested in ensuring better health care for the community, especially in a time like this pandemic, as the medical profession braces for whatever comes next.

His specialization is in endocrinology – which means seeing people with diabetes and other hormonal problems. People with diabetes have a higher risk of severe infection with COVID-19 and are required to take more precautions.

Dr. Bajaj has adapted his clinic to the new environment and consults with patients over the phone and video and sees patients who need to be seen. He believes it is important to provide patients with a continuity of care, educate them and also, help them adopt technology.

“I encourage patients to use new apps. For instance, with an app, their glucose readings can be shared with me, and I can look at their readings and adjust medication if I need to,” he says.

Born in India, trained in India and the US, Dr. Bajaj started his endocrinology practice with LMC Brampton in 2009 after he immigrated to Canada with his family. Today, he is also the Founder of the “STOP Diabetes” Foundation, volunteers as Vice Chair at Diabetes Canada and a Principal Investigator, Canadian Diabetes Prevention Program, among other things.

He urges members of the community to visit the Diabetes Canada website for information about COVID-19.

“At Diabetes Canada, we have worked to provide information related to COVID-19, including a FAQs document available on the website, in addition to developing ‘ask the expert’ videos about COVID-19 and diabetes,” he says.

Recently, Dr. Bajaj collaborated with the University of Toronto to produce information to help family doctors manage patients with diabetes during COVID-19. What lab tests or exams should they focus on, what should they defer to a different timeline, what are risks associated with COVID-19, what counselling services are available?

Dr. Bajaj also hosts a weekly Monday night show on Channel Y (which can also be accessed via YouTube) on behalf of the Stop Diabetes Foundation, in Hindi and Punjabi, to educate the community about COVID-19 in general and the link between diabetes and COVD-19.

Dr. Bajaj’s advice to the community is to pay attention to advice from reliable sources. “Most immigrants are taking the right precautions and know the risks. Continue to do so. Read, know and follow advice that comes from public health agencies from the different provinces. There are a lot of different channels where people get advice – social media has a lot of misinformation.”

On the other hand, he believes health care professionals should adapt to the situation. “Education is key. Providing information at the level that patients need it at is necessary.” he says.

Ghaidaa Arbash, Family Support Worker, WoodGreen Community Services

Ghaidaa Arbash was originally a pediatrician in her native Syria. That expert knowledge of both health and children is helping her to ensure the families she works with, through her job at WoodGreen Community Services, are well supported during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Arbash and her husband moved to Canada in May 2012, when her first daughter was three years old and she was five months pregnant with her second daughter.  “We chose Canada because we wanted to raise our daughters in a safe, developed and supportive community,” she says.

Arbash is committed to helping others who have made Canada their home. She usually supports refugee families in need, from in-person workshops to providing support with their citizenship tests to helping them navigate the often-confusing government and financial systems in a new country.

The pandemic has changed all that – no longer able to meet her clients in person at the WoodGreen office or local libraries, she is doing everything she can to ensure they continue to be supported through this challenging time.

Arbash has pivoted to helping virtually – walking clients step-bystep on how to apply for government benefits, translating complex COVID-19 health information into Arabic, ensuring families can get their kids connected to online learning and organizing online workshops and conference calls about how to access resources and supports.

The situation has been challenging to her clients. “On top of the personal challenges that everybody has, like adapting to the online learning and quarantine, my clients lost their connections with the governmental support channels and most of them were in fear and stress because of the environment of uncertainty. In addition, some of them lost their jobs.”

When she’s not connecting with clients online, she’s ensuring newcomer seniors and others get the groceries and vital supplies they need while in isolation. As an immigrant herself, Arbash can relate to her clients’ struggles and is going the extra mile to ensure they all have what they need to weather this crisis.

Arbash sees opportunities for learning as we emerge from these times of COVID both at the community and professional level.

“On the community level, I think we proved that Canadians are very supportive of each other, very responsible, and caring…at the professional level, I think we need to better integrate with online support programs. Web-based meetings may sometimes have a better chance of attendance and more options of presentation.”

What makes her work meaningful to her is being able to help vulnerable people through difficult times. “It is an amazing feeling when you can do something for people who are really confused and support them with all struggles that they have as newcomers,” she says.

Florence Kao, Employment Specialist, DIVERSEcity Community Resources Society

Florence Kao says she’s someone who never gives up. “I always look for solutions, instead of problems,” says Florence, who works with B.C.-based immigrant-serving agency, DIVERSEcity Community Resources Society. Kao has found a way to use both her professional experience and her sewing skills to find solutions to the problems caused by COVID-19.

Kao is working with a group of immigrant women in B.C., sewing cloth facemasks to help in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. These entrepreneurial seamstresses are members of a sewing business collective called Sewmates Craft, a part of the Intercultural Women’s Maker Society.

The Cloth Facemask Initiative came together within days after the women had their first virtual team meeting on March 25, soon after the start of the pandemic in Canada. Research was done, sewing machines came out, patterns were created and the women started sewing masks — each from their individual homes. As of mid-July, the sewing collective has already made and delivered more than 2,700 cloth facemasks to vulnerable communities and those in need who wouldn’t have access to medical masks. The plan is now to call for donations so they can get the masks to designated care home facilities and/or homeless shelters.

“Sewmates Craft members are genuinely appreciative of being able to offer something in the COVID situation. By helping the community, the group also implemented the whole business operation process in this initiative, including product development, promotion/marketing, production, delivery/logistics and accounting practices. It’s a precious experience for a new business collective. The sales from individual orders and designated donations are able to cover the cost of  fabrics, supplies and some of the members’ hours. In the busy weeks, members were making 200-300 clothmasks per week,” says Kao.

“Empowering immigrant women to become self-employed is a passion of mine,” says Kao. “And I couldn’t be prouder of this amazing group of women, who come from different cultural backgrounds, for using their sewing skills for the greater good in these difficult times.”

Taiwan-born Kao came to Canada in 2007 with a world of experience as a senior human resources manager. But like many internationally trained professionals, she  found herself starting her career over after immigrating to Metro Vancouver with her family. Now Kao helps newcomers with their business ventures.

While these masks are not replacements for surgical or N95 masks, which are in extremely high-demand for health care workers, such cloth masks are gaining popularity globally. According to BC Centre for Disease Control, the virus is transmitted via droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes. A mask can act as a barrier to help keep a person’s droplets in.