Updated: September 12, 2020 1:18:39 pm
On a July morning, Deeksha Singh’s (name changed) mother-in-law announced she wanted to visit their relatives in Delhi. Despite her reluctance, the Greater Noida West-based family went ahead with the plan. “We drove all the way to north-west Delhi in our car. My mother-in-law had been missing her own mother for a while, and the lockdown had made it impossible for them to meet. My husband and I had tried to reason with her that it would not be safe to take the trip amid the pandemic, since she is a diabetic and, therefore, immuno-compromised. But, we were soon in our relatives’ house, and there was no way we could journey back home the same day. We had to spend a weekend there,” she says.
Shortly after their return, Deeksha and her husband realised it was a welcome change. “We understood the need for the family members to meet each other, as it had been several months and people had begun to feel dreary. Now, we have decided to meet them again, sometime in September. We are of course staying safe, keeping our distance, wearing masks and not stepping out of the house unless absolutely necessary. And I am glad we are all fine, including my mother-in-law,” said the 29-year-old homemaker.
Deeksha and her family have formed a ‘support bubble’ – and around the country many people have become part of such bubbles, unbeknown to them. Mostly it has happened during the phases of ‘unlock’, which have made it possible for them to step out of their home and interact with people.
The concept of the support bubble is believed to have originated in the UK in the month of June, when Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that adults, who live by themselves and single parents with children under 18, can join other households to create a bubble. When you form one, you become a part of one household. It is mostly done so people feel less isolated in the pandemic.
Ideally, bubbles have to be exclusive; meaning you cannot switch. So, if you have formed a bubble with someone, you cannot go interacting with other people outside of the bubble. And of course, when inside the bubble you do not have to socially-distance yourself from others, provided everyone is following the safety norms and keeping safe.
In Mumbai, 30-year-old Aman Jha, a senior strategy manager, says he has been staying with his parents, and interacting with his cousin’s family on and off, having formed one big bubble. “We are four members in our house, and my cousin lives nearby with his parents, about 500 metres away. Seven of us are a part of this bubble,” he shares.
When the country had begun moving to the unlock phase, Jha said his cousin’s family had come over. “We had not mingled with anyone else per se, and neither had they. Both the families took all the safety precautions, just so we could all be together. We have always been quite close and it was difficult having to stay away from one another. It has not been so much about feeling lonely – work from home is keeping us all occupied – as much as it has been about not seeing familiar faces for months. While our two families have lived close by all these years – my cousin and I even went to the same school – the lockdown made us feel as though we were living in separate cities. So, of course it felt good connecting with them once again. And while there are many other people I want to connect with, I know it cannot happen at the moment, or until all the restrictions have been relaxed,” Jha says.
His thoughts are echoed by Karthik, another Mumbai resident, who works for a multinational company in the city.
Karthik says the apartment complex he lives in has three houses on the same floor, one of which is his. “The other two houses are occupied by family only – my grandmother lives in one, and my uncle resides in the other. In March, there was absolute chaos in the family. While we were in touch with them, we had had to follow social distancing norms, and other safety protocols. For over two decades now, we have lived as a joint family, but this pandemic changed everything.
“From even before the pandemic, if I bought anything from the market, I would buy an additional set for my relatives, too. It has continued, wherein if I step out, I get my grandmother her medicines, or get something for my uncle and his family, so they do not have to step out. But in addition to this, I have started going to their house, so I can spend time with them. They are growing old and more than anything else, need the company of other people right now. I think most human beings are going through a difficult time mentally, and the only way out of it is human interaction,” he says.
On weekends, Karthik says he goes to his relatives’ houses and spends time playing board games with his cousins. “They are really young, and are getting bored at home. It has turned out to be a vacation they didn’t ask for. So, I try to keep them occupied as much as I can when I have my off days. I can positively say I am socializing, but within the family,” he shares.
How safe are these bubbles?
While most people are aware of the severity of the situation and are conducting themselves responsibly, experts warn that in order to form bubbles – especially in India – some things have to be considered.
Dr Rakesh Rajput, Director and Consultant, Orthopaedics at the Calcutta Medical Research Institute (CMRI), says the concept of support bubbles originated in the west where — unlike in India — “good support systems are not in place”. “In the west, there are more elderly people living alone, and to make it easier for them in lockdown, it was suggested that they tag along with another family to become an extension of that family. While it is not necessary to stay in the same house, it is preferred if they live close by. People have been wearing masks for so long, especially when they meet someone from outside their house. It is natural for them to wish to stay safe with all their near and dear ones – for instance with two families coming together: parents and grandparents.
“Within the bubble, people have the freedom of not taking all the precautions. But, it is important to note that bubbles must not be formed with people who go out and interact with other people on the regular, thereby exposing themselves to the infection. As such, you should not form a bubble with a doctor or their family – or with a nurse, a paramedic or even an ambulance driver. If any member of the support bubble catches the virus, the entire bubble bursts and everybody has to compulsorily go into quarantine,” he warns.
Dr Rohan Sequeria, Consultant General Medicine, Jaslok Hospital and Research Centre, says a basic screening can be done before adding someone to the bubble. “After that person is added, no major risks are involved. If you or someone in your support bubble is showing coronavirus symptoms, or otherwise self-isolating, everyone in your support bubble should stay home. If you or a member of your support bubble is contacted as part of the test and trace programme, the individual contacted must stay at home. If the individual becomes symptomatic, everyone in the support bubble must then isolate,” he says.
“Support bubbles help people feel less isolated and are usually quite safe as long as the people within the bubble follow the rules of social distancing and hygiene outside the bubble. They are extremely useful in alleviating the feeling of being alone, especially with older individuals. This also creates a support structure for elderly people living alone, especially with high demands of constant health care needs,” Dr Sequeria tells indianexpress.com.
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