Coronavirus update: Are our multi-generational homes putting elders at greater risk?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his address to the nation on March 19, asked senior citizens to stay indoors for a few weeks to protect themselves from being infected by the coronavirus disease (Covid-19), while also calling upon others to not venture out for any non-essential work.
The PM’s appeal is in line with the current medical knowledge offered by public health experts and researchers in order to stem the tide of the global pandemic which has left 275,452 persons infected worldwide at latest count.
Even as conflicting reports have emerged on the correlation between age and a person’s vulnerability to the virus, statistics from some of the worst-hit countries have shows that old and those with pre-existing ailments are more likely to die or develop serious complications, while asymptomatic, often young, people have a tendency to transmit the virus and be very contagious.
A study issued by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week showed that while young adults are not immune to serious illness that needs hospitalisation, the percentage of people hospitalised increased with age.
The data are relevant for India where young adults account for the majority of recorded Covid-19 infections. All four Covid-19 deaths in India have been of people over 60 years.
This means even if older people stay indoors and young leave only for essential work, the elderly are still vulnerable to the virus, especially in India where many people live in multi generational families.
According to figures compiled by the United Nations, an average Indian household has 4.8 members. This is the highest in comparison to 10 countries worst-hit by the Coronavirus pandemic. China and Italy, where the number of cases have been the highest, have 3.5 and 2.4 members per household, respectively.
Four in 10 Indian households were home to non-nuclear families, according to the fourth National Family Health Survey (NFHS), conducted in 2015-16.
That a significant number of Indian households were not nuclear families also means that many of them were multi-generational families, which is to say that members of a wide range of age groups live together.
A Hindustan Times analysis of the NFHS data shows that every third household in India had at least one senior citizen (aged 60 or above) and at least one person of a younger age. Also, 17% households had at least one member from all wider age groups – a child up to 10 years old, someone between 10 and 60 years of age and a senior citizen who is 60 years old or above.
This means even if only a young member of a family leaves home for essential work such as buying groceries or medicine, many senior citizens back home continue to remain vulnerable by being in contact with their younger family members.
Also, there are about 4.3% households in which only senior citizens live, which in many cases would mean that they have no option but to leave their house for essential work.
The share of families with at least one senior and one non-senior citizen varies across the states and union territories with the highest in Lakshadweep and Kerala (more than 40%) and the lowest in Arunachal Pradesh and Dadra and Nagar Haveli (about 17%). In national capital New Delhi, a quarter of households had at least one senior and one non-senior member.
As the country records 258 confirmed cases, it is imperative to practise safety measures, including disinfecting surfaces and sanitising/ washing hands regularly even more stringently.