The new social order that the coronavirus pandemic will bring forth may just be the beginning of the end for one of India’s most enduring cultural practices–living in joint families. As we prepare to live in a low-touch world of physical distancing, these units of six or seven people may no longer work.
The brutal irony in this is that it is likely to unfold at a time when the elderly are especially vulnerable to the virus and need care. But younger Indians, who will return to work gradually, will not want to expose their elderly relatives to the infection they might be carrying.
Given that the novel coronavirus isn’t going anywhere for a long time, this could be disastrous for the joint family.
Social distancing isn’t easy
Younger people are at a lower risk of developing severe symptoms of the infection, and many might never show any, while older people, likelier to have comorbidities, have a higher chance of getting seriously ill. Having a potentially asymptomatic carrier and a vulnerable elderly person in the same house will increase the risk for the latter.
Government data reveals that between 2001 and 2011, the growth in the number of joint families in urban India was as high as 29 per cent, as against just 2 per cent in rural areas. This is not always out of a Barjatya-esque sense of familial joy or a Johar-esque idea of duty to one’s parents. Sometimes it makes financial sense, too, if more and more people are moving to bigger cities for work and need a place to stay, or in the case of many families that run businesses together. Sometimes there is a medical condition that needs looking after. Or it could be just for the sake of lazy convenience – why bother doing everything yourself when it can be done for you as it always has been?
Whatever the reason, the one thing that takes a beating is the one thing that is key to flattening the Covid curve – social distancing.
Unlike Wuhan, which set up temporary hospitals to care for Covid patients with mild symptoms, India is unable to even test every person with symptoms (leave alone 100 per cent population testing). In such a situation, the only way to protect oneself and one’s family is by maintaining physical distance from them. It’s possible if family members live on different floors of the same house, or have a large enough space that means each individual can pretty much live in their room. But many don’t have this luxury.
With real worries about the health of older relatives, many will look to move out of home as soon as they can.
Staying away for the sake of the family
Mahita Nagaraj, who set up Caremongers in March to help senior citizens get their essential supplies and have their basic needs taken care of as social distancing rules kicked in, has not been home in two months. She lives with her mother and 12-year-old son, but because she didn’t want to risk exposing them to infection given her volunteer work, she has been staying with a friend and fellow Caremonger.
She isn’t alone. Akshita, a 20-something marketing professional in Mumbai, tells ThePrint that once the restrictions are lifted and she has to return to work, she will go stay with a friend and meanwhile, start looking for an apartment to rent. “It won’t be easy, this is a hellishly expensive city and housing here sucks,” she rues, “but I can’t afford to go back to work, that too, using the train or a taxi, and then come home to my parents, my grandfather and my aunt. We don’t have the kind of house where I can isolate myself.”
A lawyer in Bengaluru says he has been keen to move out of his family home for a while, and Covid might just give him good reason. “My family has never allowed me to move out, even though I’m 34 now. They’ve always said there’s no need until I get married and have kids. But now, I think I might have to.”
India has always taken pride in its age-old joint family system, even at the cost of giving to the world overgrown, entitled children who cannot, or are too lazy to, fend for themselves. The typical urban Indian does not move out of the family home until they are married (and many times, not even then). They’re used to an army of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins to help with everything from boredom to homework. And there’s always been someone to cook and clean.
Lockdown gave lessons for staying alone
But now, in the absence of domestic staff, many young urban Indians, who have never or rarely wielded a broom, have stepped up to do household chores with aplomb. In addition to working from home, many have taken on the daily tasks of cooking, cleaning and doing the dishes so that the elders in the family don’t have to. And armed with these skills, they are looking to move out of home, not because they don’t get along with their families, but precisely because they love them.
As Akshita points out, “Just because I want to live away from them doesn’t mean we won’t be close. I’m doing it for their sake. I’ll probably even spend more quality time with them after I leave than I do now.”
Perhaps, then, one fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic is that India will finally get over its romanticised notion of the joint family as a symbol of sanskaar, love and duty, and will embrace the idea that moving out on your own is good for the individual as well as for the family.
Views are personal.