COVID and Diwali as Tools for Learning Cultural Competence

COVID-19 has impacted billions of people around the world to varying degrees. For the most part, our lives have changed socially, as we are expected to physically distance, limit our contacts, and follow other procedures to maintain public health and safety. While these expectations and suggestions are nearly universal within Canada and other parts of the world, there are various limits to which these guidelines are followed by citizens. Some chalk it up to ignorance and selfish behaviour, but there are certain factors to consider that may explain others’ behaviour, serving as additional context that helps explain the reasons for the situation we are in, particularly in the Greater Toronto Area. 

Brampton is a city that has faced notable backlash for its frighteningly high number of COVID cases. The city is reporting roughly 200 new cases per day, and Peel Public Health has investigated 12,700 cases in Brampton since the pandemic began. As such, many people have begun to judge the character of Bramptonians in belief that they are selfishly refusing to socially distance. While there are certainly portions of the population that this assessment applies to, we should consider unlearning this judgmental view, and adopt a more compassionate lens that allows us to understand instead of place blame. The often-ignored reality of the situation is Brampton has a high number of essential workers. Many of these citizens are hardworking immigrants who are unable to work from home, and are forced to risk their own health by working in the front lines. Vulnerable workers in the frontlines work essential jobs that the rest of us are reliant on - such as food processing, transportation, health care, and factory work. As Brampton’s mayor Patrick Brown stated, “Rather than finger-pointing at people who are taking on necessary work, I really believe we need to say: 'What can we do to support them?' They have our back. We should have theirs." Additional reasons for the disparity in positivity rates in Brampton neighborhoods and that of other cities includes other racial equity factors. Many immigrants in Brampton live in multiple-family households, where many individuals are in close proximity to one another (making it difficult to reduce spread if one person has the virus). Additionally, the city’s mayor has also acknowledged that part of the issue may be language barriers creating difficulties in understanding public health procedures. People have been blaming individuals rather than systems, inaccurately painting citizens in a negative light. Some may be at fault, but the disregard of the rules is an issue that exists in most places, not just this one city. 

Similarly, members of the South Asian community recently celebrated Diwali, many of whom adapted to the COVID guidelines and celebrated within their social circles. Unfortunately, the festivities were prone to some members engaging in a lack of social distancing, celebrating in large groups. While criticism of such activities is valid, where was this energy during Halloween when people hosted parties all over, and during Thanksgiving when large groups of families and friends all got together? It is fair and admirable to prioritize health and safety, making sure we are accountable, but our criticism should be equal, not something to be applied only toward specific communities, masking potential racism. 

This issue goes beyond Brampton. In fact, one of our unlearn team members experienced ignorance stemming from a Diwali celebration this past weekend in Niagara. Ravi, our Product Development and Production Coordinator, was celebrating Diwali with his family by lighting fireworks - a common activity for the ‘celebration of lights’ - and was met with hostility by the neighbours. They were not violent or directly confrontational, but they were certainly judgmental, and Ravi overhead them directing obscenities towards him and his family for celebrating Diwali in the way it has traditionally been celebrated. Rather than hurling insults from the shadows towards Ravi and his family, the neighbours could have been mature and started a conversation like adults. This would have allowed them to voice their concerns without being disrespectful, and Ravi would have explained the situation, rectifying them of their ignorance. Since we have become so accustomed to distancing ourselves, some may have forgotten what it means to be neighbourly. 

Similarly, Rishi Sunak, Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer faced criticism from some British citizens for celebrating Diwali by lighting diyas (oil lamps) outside his home on 11 Downing Street - a first in British history. Many people were calling him out on twitter regarding political matters, but other ignorant comments called for “removing religion from politics”, and claimed that he was “virtue signaling”, even though he was simply carrying out a tradition in his culture, and practicing his religion.

It is valid to have concerns over public health practices, and a lack of social distancing, but why have some of us forgotten basic traits like respect and empathy? The pandemic has led to hyper-sensitivity and hyper-judgement, which unfortunately allows for biases, prejudices and cultural incompetence to insert themselves in the mix. As we continue to be isolated from one another, and no longer exposed to a diversity of people, opinions and perspectives, we may be unconsciously narrowing our perspectives. We can prioritize health and safety while still being respectful and understanding - these are not mutually exclusive. 

Situations regarding COVID-19 and Diwali have served as examples that shed light on the lack of cultural competence in our communities. We should unlearn our tendency to deploy immediate judgements, and (re)learn how to be understanding, compassionate, empathetic, and open to diverse perspectives, actions, and views.

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