The 21st century witnessed a transition in family norms – from an extended family based on the reciprocal obligation to the nuclear family based on self-fulfillment. The proliferation of education in the middle class in the 2000s led men and women to venture into the public domain to fulfill career goals, seek partners through dating and so on. However, COVID-19 has rendered community cooperation much more important than individual fulfillment, state intervention more important than the ‘invisible hand’ driving capitalism.
The times of Coronavirus outbreak has observed a reverse trend- a shift from personal achievement in the public sphere to halting all self-fulfilling achievements for the greater good, as we are bound to stay within the four walls of our homes. Once again, as in the nineteenth century, a family is the life force and not the free market. In other words, the individual has been lifted from self-interest to public interest. In this context, it is necessary to investigate the impact of COVID-19 on the politics of the family.
Asymmetrical Impact of Global Pandemics
Global Pandemics have a history of impacting the demography across differential social axes. Emerging Infections Program (EIP) hospitalization data collected between 2009-10 indicated that minority sections had been more extensively affected by 2009 H1N1 than non-minority groups. Black, non-Hispanics were the most hospitalized race whereas White, non-Hispanics were the least hospitalized ones. The H1N1 virus had primarily affected children and adults under 65 who lacked immunity to H1N1.
The current Ebola outbreak in the north-east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) “has disproportionately affected women in some of the cities and towns, though not all. As of end-January 2019, there have been over 700 cases of Ebola in DRC, of which about two-thirds are women.” (World Health Organisation).
The Coronavirus outbreak in obvious ways did not affect families uniformly. The consequences of the global pandemic differ on the basis of the class, level of education, geographical area, and generation the family belongs to. Uneducated and lower-income families, old generation families, rural families are at greater risk in the current public health crisis.
It is important to understand that power structures within families affect individual family members differently. Gender hierarchies and age hierarchies are two dominant forms of the power pyramid within families.
The impact of COVID 19: Dynamics of Gender and Age
According to a National Family Health Survey released by the Union health ministry, every third woman, since the age of 15, have been survivors of various manifestations of domestic violence in India. Although India is one of the countries with the lowest divorce rate, the number of divorces has doubled over the last two decades, according to a United Nations report titled “Progress of the World’s Women 2019-2020: Families in a Changing World”. Research by Stephen Jenkins, a professor at the London School of Economics, has established that post-divorce working women face a 20 percent decline in income as opposed to men who see their incomes rising by more than 30 percent post-divorce. The poverty rate for divorced women is 27 percent, almost triple the figure for separated men.
Considering that social phenomenon such as divorce and domestic violence is gendered, the evident implication is that COVID-19 means more suffering for women than men. Thus, the implication of rural, underprivileged or single women being confined to the domestic realm due to COVID-19 is that they are more likely to find self-quarantine as unbearable.
While offspring receive unconditional care from their parents, old parents receive conditional care from their children. Evident in this fact is the amplified suffering for those living within the boundaries of orphanages or old age homes. People see caring for their old parents as an obligation they are bound to carry out and not as an unconditional act of affection and love.
Added to this is nature and biology determined health hazards on senior citizens as their anatomy and physiology make them more vulnerable to COVID-19 than the younger generations. According to the National Institute of Health’s (ISS) latest report, 85.6 percent of those who have died in Italy due to COVID-19 were over 70. According to an Al Jazeera report, with 23 percent of Italians over 65 years old, the Mediterranean country has the second-oldest population in the world after Japan – and observers believe age distribution could also have played a role in raising the fatality rate.
To conclude, the Coronavirus outbreak has the potential to bring about a radical shift in our understanding of ethics and the politics of family. The time span and spread of this health crisis will bring about a tangible change in family structures and social configurations.