Practicing Medicine During COVID-19 and Sikhi Are Not Mutually Exclusive

We as Sikh physicians should not take losing our saroop lightly.

Attacks Against Sikhi Saroop

Growing up in the United Kingdom in the 1960s and 70s, I faced overt racism in the form of verbal and physical abuse. The abuse ceased when I confronted the school bully who then meekly backed off. As I grew older, the abuse morphed from physical to mental; sometimes obvious but sometimes not. After graduating with my PhD, I was in search of an academic position. I met with my mentor who reached across the table and pulled at the skin on my hand, and pointed to my dastaar and said,“These are going to be your problems.”And so, I should leave the UK and look for a research fellowship in the United States.

I arrived here and was pleasantly surprised at how welcoming everyone was. No stares or verbal abuse, though perhaps it was because I was in, the very liberal, Madison, WI in the 1980s. I later attended medical school in Des Moines, Iowa. A fellow Sikh student shocked me one day when he came in clean-shaven and without his dastaar. When I asked him why, he replied that because when he was a sardar, he felt it was beneath him to take orders from attending doctors. This seemed odd to me and I suspected it was just an excuse for him to get rid of his saroop; perhaps he was waiting for an opportunity to do so. Was this weakness? Poor commitment?  Perhaps he was struggling with other issues? I do not know. He would not engage in any further discussion. Since then, I have seen several Sikh doctors who have chosen to get rid of their saroop. Their actions have been their own choice and not due to difficult work circumstances.

Taking Care of COVID19 Patients with a Turban & Beard

There are hundreds of thousands of Sikh doctors across the world. Many of them, no doubt, take care of COVID-19 patients in hospital wards, emergency rooms, intensive care units (ICUs), and operating rooms.  While it is true that there is a worldwide PPE (personal protective equipment) shortage, the doctors in the ICU and operating room take precedence for protective equipment because of high risk of infections in these environments. 

The news of Sikh healthcare workers shaving their beards because of the impedance it causes to take care of COVID-19 patients raises many questions. First, it should be noted that there are beard-compatible PPEs out there like PAPR (powered air purifying respirators). These respirators are consistently used by bearded doctors around the world and have proven to be an effective solution. Was the administration unable to acquire PAPRs for them? If they did have the PAPR, did they fail the fit-test/leak test? If the tests failed, what other attempts were made to get a proper seal?  While they may have had other reasons for shaving, the lack of proper protection should not have been one of them.

My beard is a non-negotiable

Having a beard for a Sikh is not a sartorial preference but a religious requirement.  Surgeons of all faiths have been operating with beards since the early days of medicine. What has changed for Sikhs now? Many Sikh doctors have found workarounds if the standard seal is imperfect. Members of other faiths have done the same; I recently spoke to an Orthodox Jewish neurosurgeon, who said that under no circumstance would he ever cut his beard.

It is the duty of the Sikh doctor to bring the issue to the medical administration’s attention if there is a problem.  Although it is the duty of the physician to protect and heal the patient, it is also the administration’s responsibility to provide the physician with necessary protective equipment. If they do not, they would be practicing indirect religious discrimination. No medical institution should ever place a Sikh doctor in a position to choose between the practice of medicine and the practice of Sikhi. They are not mutually exclusive. As a Sikh doctor who keeps his beard and dastar while treating COVID19 patients myself, I know this firsthand.

Doctor in the UK have faced similar challenges. A number of them had been forced from key frontline roles. The Sikh Doctors Association took up their case to a successful outcome. The NHS have procured PAPRs for them. Similarly in Canada, the World Sikh Organization has been working with Sikh health care workers since the beginning of the pandemic to support PPE accommodations appropriate for bearded professionals. Sikh Coalition, in the United States, is also advocating for health care workers’ religious rights.

When Dilemma Strikes

Say there is a situation where the PAPR is not available, despite all efforts being made to procure one then, the administration could ask the physician not to work the “front lines”. In which case, this is a true dilemma. Each Sikh must reach deep into their hearts and make a decision.

Our history is witness to always taking the high road and upholding our rehat.

We as Sikh physicians should not take losing our saroop lightly. It has far reaching repercussions and will make our continued struggles of establishing religious freedoms and protections much more difficult. Our gains to keep our saroop while serving in different branches of government, diverse industries, and varied public arenas, etc. will be set decades back because of our actions in the medical field. Deciding to make the choice between seva, rehat, simran, kirat karna, and vand chakna is simply not viable – they are not things you can pick and choose based on circumstance and convenience but instead, are to be practiced together. It is our collective responsibility to uphold the Sikhi principles, and those who need to, should reach out to the Sikh community at large to seek solutions. No Sikh should feel alone in their struggle.

Dr. Mohan Singh Dhariwal is an internist and assistant professor of medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin with over 25 years of experience.

Since the COVID19 outbreak, he has been taking care of patients afflicted with the virus in the Milwaukee area.

To learn more about staying healthy and safe, you can watch an interview with Dr. Dhariwal in Punjabi here

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