Reflecting on the role men have played in caregiving during the pandemic in honor of Father's Day
It was a regular Sunday in the “new normal” times since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the globe. I had been in India with my family for almost five months—it was the longest I have ever stayed at home since I moved to the US, thanks to a remote work arrangement.
My mother was feeling a bit low and complained about body ache. The previous day we had heard that one of our neighbors had tested positive for COVID. India was in its early days of what soon became the horrific second wave. Laboratories were already running at capacity. Thankfully, my mother had an appointment for routine bloodwork the next day and we were able to add a test for COVID to the visit. Just two weeks earlier she was tested for COVID with a negative result, and we were quite sure she would test negative this time as well; she had only left the house once for her routine health check-up since her last test. I called the laboratory the day after she was tested and the voice on the other end reported she was COVID positive. The pandemic had hit us at home.
My brother was getting ready for work and my sister-in-law, niece, and I were with my mother in the living room when we received the news. We sat silently for a moment. It felt like the calm before the storm. My mother went into her room and isolated herself. All of us were in an emotional roller coaster–confusion, fear, restlessness, urge to stay calm—all at once. We spent the next four hours on the phone consulting with doctors, lining up a treatment plan, contacting friends to line up a hospital bed in case we needed one, and stocking basic medical supplies like a non-contact thermometer, oximeter, immunity boosters for the rest of us, and a steam inhalation kit. The doctor recommended putting her on anti-viral injections as soon as possible; treatment would depend on how quickly we managed to get them. The doctor alerted us that these injections were in short supply and suggested a few pharmacies where the likelihood of getting the medicines was high. My brother checked those out as well as other faraway locations. No luck. He then contacted his friends and colleagues for any leads and stood in long queues only to find out that the medicines were out of stock. Losing time meant losing our chances to COVID.
Amidst this chaos we received a message from our doctor’s assistant; a patient who was prescribed the same treatment as my mother had managed to secure a five-day dose and was willing to offer us the dose for the first day if we could replace it the next day. There was a sigh of relief and a deep sense of gratitude for the doctor and the patient; both of whom we have not met to date. The next day, my brother’s friend helped us secure the injections and we were able to give my mother her full dose and replace the “borrowed” life saver to the other patient.
By late afternoon, a nurse was administering my mother’s first dose. He visited every day for five days to administer her daily dosage and took a picture of my mother with her oxygen levels to report back to the doctor. Home-based medical treatment seemed to have become a norm in the second wave of Covid for patients who didn’t have major complications; it helped save a hospital bed for a patient who really needed it. The nurse would tell us how acute the situation was overall. He would visit several homes in a day to treat patients with hardly enough time to eat lunch.
There were basic things to figure out, like how we maintain physical distance while caring for mom, how to get groceries, how to dispose of the garbage, how to clean the dishes that went to my mother’s room. There were no right answers; we Googled, talked to friends who had gone through such a situation, and did the best we could. In the next six days my niece and my sister-in-law developed COVID symptoms. They isolated themselves in two separate rooms. Fortunately, we had the privilege of space. Even then, staying in isolation for two weeks was hard for them; we would exchange inspirational messages on WhatsApp to keep our spirits high. Social distancing is a concept that doesn’t really work in India where the population density is much higher than most countries and where most people live in joint families. We don’t like to be alone; we rely on each other and thrive through interconnectedness.
My brother and I were in charge of running the house and caring for our family. Our day started at 6 in the morning with kitchen chores—making neem juice (it was the time of the year when we traditionally drink neem juice mixed with rock sugar to prepare our bodies for the approaching summer heat; with its healing properties, neem came in handy in the Covid times), then chai, then soup. By then it would be time for lunch, then afternoon snacks with another round of fluids or sometimes seasonal fruit, then dinner, and a cup of turmeric milk for everyone before bed. Everything had to be homemade, of course. My brother made short trips to get groceries and other essentials. We had a running list of things to get, to which my brother and I would keep adding to minimize outside trips.
With lockdowns during pandemic, household care work has significantly increased. In a five-country online/phone survey conducted by Oxfam and Promundo last year, around half of the women respondents expressed that they were spending more time in care and domestic work due to lockdowns. While they were doing the bulk of it, men also reported spending more time on care. I quickly saw how it can explode when you have family members being treated for Covid at home.
My niece has been home-schooling online for a year now and she continued attending as she recovered. My brother would make sure she woke up on time, ate breakfast, and was ready for her classes every day, while caring for my sister-in-law and managing his own office work, remotely. I worked reduced hours at night and managed kitchen duties and chores like watering plants and care needs in the daytime while my brother prepared food and managed household chores in the evening.
The work never seemed to end. Whoever had time would do laundry, attend to the maid (who safely supported us during this time), keep family and friends updated, and check on friends who we knew were infected. We exchanged covid tips and supported each other. Medical care included managing my mother, sister-in-law, and niece’s medicine schedule and monitoring their food intake, checking their oxygen levels and body temperature every three hours, reminding them of breathing exercises and steam inhalation thrice a day and staying in touch with the doctor via WhatsApp and giving daily reports and getting lab work done as prescribed. It was almost like we were a mini health center! My brother and I were a tag-team, working hand in hand.
When three of our family members had to isolate in their rooms, it occurred to us that we could be next! We even cracked a joke about it—who is going to take care of us if we get infected? We were being extremely cautious—we were masked up all the time and washed our hands frequently, took immunity boosters, drank herbal concoctions, and found time for steam inhalation before going to bed. I also made sure I took one hour in the morning every day to do my yoga and pranayama. It was as if I was filling up on all the energy for the rest of the day in that hour.
My meditation practice was benefitting me. Times like this are “opportunities to come out of our old habit pattern”—our tendencies to react blindly, my teacher would say. I’ve been practicing Vipassana meditation for some time now, and during the virtual group sittings, students often ask, How do we know if we are benefitting from our practice. This was a testing time for me, quite literally. I had a mental guide that constantly reminded me to not react with fear or anger or aversion, but to see how those feelings manifest as body sensations and stay calm as they arise and pass with the understanding that nothing is permanent and that this too shall pass.
Covid has had lasting effects on so many of our lives and the way we go about things. It is marked by loss, grief, uncertainties, disruption as much as it is by resilience, courage, care and solidarity. As the world celebrates Father’s Day, I honor and celebrate my brother and all the dads in the world who are taking on their fair share of caregiving, so vital to sustaining our families and societies.