The cab of Sunny Grewal’s 18-wheeler is neat and tidy. He’s got bunk beds with red checkered sheets and gray interior cabinets that hide a fridge, microwave, paper plates and spices for long days on the road. One plastic container holds bite-sized sweets from his native India. “We call it gur, G-U-R,” Grewal says. “You can put it in tea, or you can have a small piece after food.”
Grewal is a trucking company owner-operator based in Fresno. He’s on the road upwards of 150,000 miles a year, delivering produce and cleaning supplies like hand sanitizer to and from the East Coast, the Midwest, and the South. In other words, his work is essential to keeping this country running. “If nurses want to take care of you, they need the stuff that we bring,” he says. “You want to buy food to stay home, you’re going to stock the food in your house, we bring that food.”
Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, the state of California designated truckers as essential workers, but that status hasn’t materialized into any tangible advantages or privileges: No requirements that rest stops remain open, no hazard pay, and no priority access to the vaccine. “It is strange that our day didn’t come sooner,” says Lovepreet Singh, a truck driver from Bakersfield who was hoping momentum in support of his industry would build after the White House honored truck drivers with a rally in April 2020.
Singh and Grewal are also among an estimated hundreds of thousands of truckers in the U.S. who are Sikh, from the northern Indian state of Punjab. The North American Punjabi Trucking Association estimates Punjabi Sikhs make up 20 percent of the country’s truckers and control as much as 40 percent of the industry in California, and yet few public health departments in the state offer critical COVID-related information in the Punjabi language. “It makes me feel left over, you know?” says Grewal.
That lack of information has had consequences for the whole Punjabi-speaking community, says Manpreet Kaur of the non-profit Jakara Movement, especially in the early days of the pandemic. “The information was just always missing or it was too late or it was shared in a way that wasn’t easily understood,” she says.
Kaur recalls a day last year she was standing outside a Sikh temple known as a Gurdwara in Bakersfield, when a woman standing near her asked her to stop practicing social distancing and move forward in line. “She was like ‘no, that’s not how the virus is passed, it’s through surfaces,’ and I’m like that is at least six-month-old information,” Kaur says.
It’s difficult to quantify the stakes of the pandemic for California’s Punjabi Sikh population, but many cities with large diaspora, like Livingston and Yuba City, have case rates that far exceed their county averages. The Jakara Movement estimates that at least four Punjabi Sikh workers were among the 14 who died in COVID outbreaks at Foster Farms poultry processing plants in Merced and Fresno Counties. “Punjabis tend to be in food processing, trucking, all of the essential work that has high exposure,” Kaur says.
So, early on, the Jakara Movement, an organization that fosters leadership and community-building among Punjabi Sikhs and other underserved communities, began translating important health information into Punjabi. They created culturally sensitive visuals, like a graphic of a Punjabi grandmother getting her COVID vaccine, and a video about vaccinations featuring Punjabi Sikh doctors.
Jaspreet Singha, another truck owner-operator based in Fresno, says there’s an intimacy in receiving information in his native tongue, even though he’s proficient in English. “It makes you feel more recognized, makes you feel, yes, your hard work is paying off when your country needed you,” he says.
That’s why Rajkaranbir Singh also stepped in to fill Punjabi-language COVID information gaps. He’s a Fresno-based announcer and engineer with Punjabi Radio USA, a radio station offering 24 hours of music, religious programs and information, which doubled its news programming in the last year as more and more callers reached out to the station with COVID-related questions. “We took that challenge and made it our responsibility that ok, we have to make this our priority to give information as much as possible to our community,” he says.
Call-in shows are now almost singularly focused on COVID, he says, and have evolved from providing information about basic health precautions to the specifics of PPP loans. “Everybody’s starting to feel the pinch of this pandemic, especially financially,” he says. “So, ‘what kind of help are we getting? What is government doing on it?’”
Shows are available via radio broadcasts in both am and fm, an internet stream, Facebook and YouTube Live, a smartphone app, Whatsapp groups, and a call-in number to listen over the phone—all in Punjabi. “That is basically our main mission, that our community is well informed, and their issues are taken seriously by policymakers or the lawmakers,” Singh says.
Most health agencies with any information in Punjabi offer just selected documents, or an option to translate automatically using Google Translate—a far cry from the multi-page websites, regular press releases and dynamic data dashboards available in English and sometimes in Spanish. Singh says it’s frustrating to see his community left in the dark. “I know people can argue they need to know English. Ok, they need to know English,” he says. “But how are they reaching out? There is no outreach to them. Even the health officials, the departments, they are not contacting us.”
Until recently, that is. In the last month, Singh says the state Department of Health has gotten in touch with the station to run a vaccine information campaign. On March 22, the state made the online vaccine appointment scheduling tool MyTurn available in five new languages, including Punjabi, and on March 27, the Fresno County Department of Public Health hosted a vaccine clinic at a Selma Gurdwara in conjunction with the Jakara Movement.
By mid-April, all Californians over age 16 will be eligible for the COVID vaccine, regardless of occupation. That includes truckers, of course, though Sunny Grewal believes they should have been prioritized in an earlier tier alongside first responders. “They should start thinking about truckers seriously, how much we help,” he says. “I know it's our job but we still are humans too.”
His suggestion: Offer the shots at rest stops where so many truckers pass by every day. It’s an idea also argued recently in a letter from the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.