What’s a Sikh Response to Coronavirus?

Coronavirus is all anyone can talk about these days. And understandably so. It’s an uncertain and nerve-wracking time. I’m not going to write about the epidemiology of COVID19, or how governments are responding, or what the market is doing. Instead, I’m going to attempt to explore a possible Sikh response to the pandemic. Inspired by Divpreet Kaur’s new podcast, Gurmat Colored Glasses, I’m going to try and approach this from a Gurbani, history, and rehat angle to answer the question, “What is a Sikhs response to the coronavirus pandemic?”

Helping Others

During the time of Guru Arjan Sahib, many people believed leprosy to be Divine retribution for a person’s sins. The Gurus rejected the idea that the Divine is vindictive or vengeful (rhetoric you might hear today in some circles regarding the coronavirus). To illustrate his point, he set up a treatment area for people afflicted with leprosy in Lahore and spent a year there serving them and showing them kindness. Similarly, in the 1660s, Guru Harkirshan Sahib didn’t let the smallpox endemic prevent him from spreading Guru’s message and lifting people’s spirits. 

I’m not encouraging you to go out and do the same! (Don’t! We have to flatten the curve.) But what I am saying, is that times of crisis are times when seva is especially needed.

Seva will look a little different than normal since you can’t engage in social activities, at the moment. Here are a few things you could do while at home to help others.

-Keep sarbat-da-bhala (may everyone prosper) in mind.

-Don’t hoard essential goods; take only what you need. 

-If you have extras, share.

-When stocking up on food in the US, look out for the WIC symbol on price signs/tags. This is food approved for people in need nutritional support to buy at a reduced rate. Consider buying an alternative food item so people using WIC can have first access to that approved item for their social-isolation/quarantining. 

-Do your part to prevent illness and practice social distancing. 

-Read up on social justice matters and find out how you can take action. (Think LGBTQ justice, racial justice, gender and sex justice, women’s rights, immigrant rights, prision reform, female infanticide, climate chage etc).  

-Write letters to your representatives on issues that matter to you. 

-Look up nonprofits near you to donate your dasvandh to or volunteer with after we are done with social distancing. 

-Donate to food banks and school lunch programs. A lot of people will be going without paychecks or meals because of closed business and schools. 

-Reach out to your friends and family over phone or video chat to see how they are doing.

-Check in on that neighbor who is elderly or that coworker who has a chronic illness. Consider making meals for them and dropping it off outside their homes.

-If there’s a safe way to still engage in seva, you can consider it. 

-Help explain things to people who might not understand English language information.

Sharing Women’s Work

Some couples are thoughtful about division of labor within their relationship at home and have open communication about their needs and wants. However, it is statistically still the case that bulk of household chores in heterosexual couples are borne by women. According to The Guarding, this situation is being exacerbated by coronavirus. 

“Women are typically the chief healthcare officer, the chief entertainment officer, the chief education officer in their homes,” said Kristy Wallace, CEO of Ellevate Network, a group that supports women in the workplace. “In a time of crisis, a time where we don’t have a clear playbook but we do have a lot of panic and anxiety – the weight of these roles is quite overwhelming.”

It will take time and conscious efforts to re-write assumptions, roles, and default modes of being. But, there are a few things we can do now to make sure the women (or primary care-givers) in our lives are not overloaded and burned out during the pandemic.

If you are not the primary care-giver/household engineer:

-Check in with the primary care-giver/household engineer to see how they are doing and feeling.  

-What can you do to support them? What things can you take off their plate? 

-Take initiative to do tasks before being asked to do them. Train your eye to see things that need tidying up/cleaning/cooking/taken care of. 

-Look for signs that this person may be struggling (sighing, isolated crying, change of mood, less frequent smiling or laughing, muttering to themselves, passive-aggressive behavior, less time doing things they enjoy, physical exhaustion, etc.) 

-Make them tea or a meal.

-Give them an impromptu massage. (Keep consent in mind!)

If you are the primary care-giver/household engineer:

-Express how you’re feeling to your family.

-Be explicit about what you need to feel better.

-Sometimes people can’t see what errands/jobs/chores doing; give them direction on how they can help.

-Set up new roles and responsibilities to divide the new workload during this time.

-Take time to rest, even if it’s only 15 mins.

Keeping Waheguru in Mind

Feel like your small apartment is a prison, of sorts, I hear ya! 

Need some inspiration? Think of Guru Nanak Sahib (imprisoned by Mughal Emperor Babar), Guru Arjan Sahib (arrested and executed by Mughal Emperor Jahangir), Guru Hargobind (also arrested by Jahangir), and Guru Teg Bahadur Sahib (arrested and executed by Mughal Aurangzeb). While they were in jail, they all engaged in simran to keep their minds attached with Waheguru and to keep in high spirits. 

Even when not in jail, all of our Gurus carved out time in their days to reflect on the Divine. (It’s probably safe to say they were always attuned to Waheguru.) Now that many of us have to work from home, our commute times have been cut down, and we may have more time to do naam simran or kirtan. This may be a great time to do a sehaj paat in your house or shared amongst friends. Doing paat, gurbani vichar, and meditation are ways we can bring peace and balance into our lives during this chaotic time. 

Reject Fear

As someone with a very vulnerable family member who is easily susceptible to infection, controlling fear is something I’ve had to work on.

Fear is a basic human instinct and it has its role in keeping us safe. The problem occurs when fear starts to take over and rule our lives. When our actions are informed solely out of fear, our higher consciousness is no longer in the driver’s seat and we can make bad decisions. Fear can be heightened in a time of crisis, like during this pandemic. Be mindful of your feelings and when fear starts to pop up, ask yourself “Why?” and try to address the underlying causes. Another way to keep fear in check is to reflect on shabads that discuss it, like this one revealed to Guru Raam Das Sahib, Ang 11

ਜਿਨ ਨਿਰਭਉ ਜਿਨ ਹਰਿ ਨਿਰਭਉ ਧਿਆਇਆ ਜੀ ਤਿਨ ਕਾ ਭਉ ਸਭੁ ਗਵਾਸੀ ॥

Jin nirbẖao jin har nirbẖao ḏẖiāiā jī ṯin kā bẖao sabẖ gavāsī.

Those who meditate on the Fearless One, on the Fearless Divine, all their fears are dispelled.

Keeping Disciplined

Discipline is a cornerstone of Sikhi. Keeping discipline and good habits during this time of self-isolation/quarantining will help you stay healthy and make the most of your time at home. Keeping a schedule or creating daily goals can help you feel accomplished and stave off cabin fever.  Are there practices that help you feel grounded and in-routine? It could be working out, journaling, reading, creating art, cooking, cleaning, nitnem, kirtan….the list goes on! 

Last Note

I’ve recently been thinking about Bibi Agya Kaur. In the early 1900s, she promoted women’s education among Sikhs in Punjab. She was a school fundraiser, kirtanee, and teacher. But then, she succumbed to the Spanish Flu pandemic. She died in 1918. 

I think about how much more wonderful seva she could have done, had she been alive. How much more kindness she could have shared. How much more love for Sikhi she could have ignited. I think about how sad it must have been for her family and friends to lose her. 

Then, I think about today’s pandemic and how just by staying at home and being hygienic, we can prevent the death of loved ones and sevdars now

Please stay safe and be careful. While you might be young and healthy, the virus can still be devastating to your health. It can be deadly to those around you like folks with an underlying illness or those who are elderly. Together, we can take care of each other. 

Keep our Panth strong. Wash your hands. Practice social distancing. 

By Lakhpreet Kaur

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