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How COVID is affecting families

Manasi Gopalakrishnan
May 17, 2021

For many of us, one year of pandemic-induced lockdown with our families has been a challenge, emotionally and physically. But what do you do, if family is all you have?

Young mother with baby
Image: Imago Images/photothek/U. Grabowsky

Earlier this year, Zijah Sherwani, the eldest of four sisters, moved back with her parents in New Delhi to prepare for the wedding of one of her siblings on April 5.

When her father started feeling unwell, Sherwani remembers asking him to get a COVID test, but he refused, attributing the flu to changing weather. "When I and another sister of mine got sick, we decided to get a test done. On April 3, we got to know that we had COVID, which meant that the wedding had to be canceled."

A very tough, emotionally-charged period began for Sherwani's family. "Because it was my father who first got sick and refused to get the COVID test done, my sister who was supposed to get married and I began blaming him." 

Sherwani's father is a diabetic and suffers from high blood pressure. After contracting COVID-19, he was confined to his bed and could barely speak. "We all started shouting at and blaming each other. It was emotionally draining for all of us. At that moment, you don't think logically and lose empathy. We were all living together and it was difficult to understand what each one of us was going through."

Some days later, Sherwani's father's oxygen levels dropped and it was decided he and his wife would go to the hospital. "It was at that moment, when I was coordinating with the ambulance driver and the hospital, and when they were leaving the house… I remember crying and feeling so hollow, so empty."

Challenges for the family

"We are living through an intense period for family life, governed by a unique set of very strong external boundaries," writes clinical psychiatrist Jay L Lebow in a paper called "Family in the age of COVID-19."

Lebow explains that these boundaries have become very rigid in a time when close physical contact has been restricted by orders to remain within one's living units.

For an individual, this could mean making intentional choices about who to be in touch with and who to exclude from regular contact. Additionally, as Lebow writes, families in many cases have also suffered losses of members or income, aspects which further derail normal life.

"Families have faced many challenges during the pandemic. One of the most prevalent issues faced by most professional families is balancing work-family life," Quebec-based Tina Montreuil, assistant professor of psychology at McGill University, Canada, told DW in a written statement. "Since our homes have become our virtual workplace throughout the pandemic, setting clear limits or delineation between work and family life had become compromised. As such, families face the challenge of setting critical, mindful and uninterrupted family time during the lockdown," she added.

Additionally, Berlin-based sociologist Mareike Bünning says that families have been affected by schools and day care centers that have been shut, and that they have to take over the responsibility of caring for and educating the children. Informal caregivers, like grandparents, are also unable to help because of lockdown measures or the need to socially distance from elderly people as well as those vulnerable to COVID. Many support networks that were available earlier are now unavailable.

"The crucial things the virus has taught us is that we are all dependent on each other," according to Lynne Segal in her essay "Ageing Matters," published in The Dictionary of Coronavirus Culture edited by Alan Bradshaw and Joel Hietanen. While many people have become more isolated in the last year, many others, Segal says, are spending more time with their children and grandchildren. We have all realized, in Segal's words, that "to be fully human, we all need to care as well as be cared for."

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Coming together as family

The immediate family, therefore, has become practically indispensable. The key to harmonious living could be, as psychiatrist Tina Montreuil says, "to ensure that we spend quality time together where our focus is centered on being well and connected."

Laura Hartmann, a PhD student at the University of Bonn, has experienced this directly this year. A single in her early 30s, Hartmann had separate living quarters in her parents' house. That way, she says, she was close to her university and place of work. Now, the pandemic has brought her even closer to her parents.

"I am more in touch with my parents, almost every day. We eat lunch together, just for company. They're happy to see me at lunchtime and I'm happy that I'm not alone all day long. We spend time everyday together for about an hour and half."

Similarly, although the pandemic upended Christina Cortes' life last year, it has helped her appreciate her family more. Cortes lives in Oakland, in the state of West Virginia in the US and belongs to an Amish Church based there. Her community has around 200 members. Cortes herself is trained in teaching and looking after children with special needs, and also cares for her 20-year-old autistic brother.

Zijah Sherwani sits between her father and mother on the sofa; her three sisters are sitting on the floor
Zijah (sitting between her parents) is trying to develop more empathyImage: Privat

Cortes was diagnosed with COVID in July 2020, one month after distressing symptoms that included fever and an upset stomach. In August, she was still testing positive for COVID and doctors were doubtful whether her positive results were because of a new infection or the old one. For weeks, Cortes was isolated with no physical contact, and that has changed her perspective on life. "It's so much more rewarding and satisfying to see someone in front of you, to communicate that way versus over the phone. That has made me appreciate so much more of what we do have and what we take for granted."

"My relationships with my mom, my sister and my brother have changed too because we are more grateful for each other." Cortes' elder sister is married to a woman and that has been a barrier in their relationship, because of their different beliefs. But the pandemic has taught her that "we can have differences but we can still talk to each other about other things, we don't have to get caught up on the smaller things."

Meanwhile, New Delhi-based Zijah Sherwani too, has learned that family is not to be taken for granted. Her parents have returned from the hospital and their relationship has taken a turn for the better. "I understood how important empathy was, no matter the situation… It's important, when it's family."

Manasi Gopalakrishnan
Manasi Gopalakrishnan Journalist and editor from India, compulsive reader of books.