It has not been easy on families to stay shut for a year. While decisions for offices and schools to re-open (or not) have gained plenty of attention, there is precious little information if and how should the family — the single most important societal unit — open up
We moved with baby, bedding and all our bags from the balmy beaches of Goa to Dubai this week. The plan for the movers was meticulously chalked out to avoid any human contact. Our family of three drove to the airport to avoid a taxi. Even our toddler sported his navy blue PPE kit until the moment we reached our destination, which for the next few months was deliberately chosen to be located in a socially distanced far flung suburb of Dubai. Our relocation — clearly adapted to the present times — had been pushed by a year because of the pandemic too, and it was one that we finally executed when circumstances could not wait any longer.
With the pandemic stretching into its second year, many families will need to take similar tough decisions about mobility. These would likely be plans that were put on hold since March 2020 — family relocations, a member of the family traveling out station for work, family outings. It has not been easy on families to stay shut for a year. While decisions for offices and schools to re-open (or not) have gained plenty of attention, there is precious little information if and how should the family — the single most important societal unit — open up.
In the first year of the pandemic, much of the discussions were around rules to stay away from the Covid-19 virus by socially distancing and shutting down institutions. As we gradually gathered more scientific information about the virus, rules for keeping safe also kept changing to which families needed to adapt. In the meantime the virus killed millions, pulled down the global economy, particularly affecting the poor.
Even if 2021 will be the year of the vaccine, it will take a while for humanity to be vaccinated. At least until the end of 2021 we still have to continue to keep safe, even if fatigued by the sameness of the situation. However, given that we have some more information about the virus, in 2021 families can also adapt better to living with the virus for the next lap of the marathon. Below are some changes that we are likely to see this year as families are ‘opening up’ cautiously.
Shorter quarantine period of at-risk family members: ‘At-risk’ individuals are those who were or think they were exposed to the Covid-19 virus even if they have no symptoms. All of last year in most parts of the world, it was recommended that ‘at-risk’ individuals need to quarantine themselves for a minimum of 14 days. Millions of families stood up to the challenge to separate and give care to a family member quarantined within a separate room of their homes. My team at Sustain Labs built a 22 floor public quarantine facility in July 2020 for at-risk individuals living in crowded homes, so many in number that they came in even before we had completed the project. However some of the major consequences of the 14-day rule were family separation and income loss, which also led to at-risk family members choosing to not quarantine at all. For such reasons recently, in countries such as France quarantine for at-risk individuals has been reduced to 7 days and in Germany for 10 days, rather than the 14 day period. Increasingly an at-risk family member quarantines for 5 days, then does the RT-PCR test on the 6th day, self isolates for another 2 days, does a second RT-PCR test on the 9th day. If both RT-PCR tests are found to be negative when results are out on the 10th day then the family member ends the quarantine period.
Distance from people not spaces: A few governments have started to give their citizens more autonomy about socialising, with a shift from closing down shops, bars, public benches to encouraging citizens to meet fewer people no matter where. For example Canada already advises to think “fewer faces, smaller groups, shorter time together and bigger spaces”. Japan too advocates to avoid “the three Cs”: Crowding, Close-contact settings and Confined spaces. Increasingly family outings will take place in public spaces that are vacant or with scant people. Parks, gardens, beaches are safe when vacant while when crowded they are fraught with danger of catching the virus. Increasingly families are getting the hang of it. Instead of convoluted rules about who can see whom, and where and how, families are following simple principles of ‘family only’ outings.
Increased focus on ventilation: Last year when my team at Sustain Labs transformed several vacant buildings in to hospitals and quarantine facilities for Covid-19 patients, we ensured that every building be vetted for proper ventilation. As Covid-19 is a respiratory disease the importance of good ventilation was paramount.
In fact, good ventilation is also crucial to stop the spread of the virus. By the end of 2020, it was found that the virus could remain airborne for longer times and travel further distances than originally thought. It was found that the spread of Covid-19 may therefore occur via airborne particles in indoor environments even beyond the 2m range encouraged by initial social distancing recommendations. As the science of this continues to evolve and we can not be sure how long and far the virus can be airborne, it has been advised to prefer the outdoors to indoors. Many families have resorted to enjoy outings in the outdoors.
Indeed for families in 2021, the basics are likely to remain the same — avoiding meeting with non-family members, wearing masks before stepping out of home, avid hand-washing and sanitising any items being brought in. However, there is likely to be more mobility given shorter quarantine periods and increased focus on staying within the family even in public spaces and choosing well ventilated places for outings. As for relocating countries, I can say from experience that let that plan wait a year more if possible!
(The writer is CEO of Sustain Labs and Adjunct Professor at SciencesPo Paris. She is also a columnist and author of the 2019 bestseller Indian Instincts — essays on freedom and equality in India)