Mukul, 33, was struck by a simple, devastating question: How many would they lose?
“We knew we would all be positive,” he said. “We were absolutely certain that someone would sacrifice.”
In India, it is common for several generations of a family to live under one roof, which is a source of cultural pride. The government’s statistics show that 42 percent of households are “non-nuclear families”
Such arrangements pose a challenge for younger people trying to protect their older, more vulnerable relatives from exposure to the virus. About half of the coronavirus deaths in India have been people over 60 years.
In just a few days, 11 members of the Garg family tested positive for the virus. Among them were Mukul’s 90-year-old bedridden grandfather; 87-year-old grandmother; 62-year-old father, who has diabetes and high blood pressure; and 60-year-old uncle, who also suffers from the same two conditions.
Their home at the end of a leafy street in Delhi was transformed into their own group of coronavirus cases, marked with a quarantine sticker and cut off from the outside world.
Zarir Udwadia, a pulmonologist at Hinduja Hospital in Mumbai, said he had seen situations where members of the same family experienced serious results after receiving a virus, suggesting a genetic vulnerability. He has also seen the opposite scenario: cases of families that had milder cases, even when other factors pointed to the risk of serious illness.
For Gargs, living together may have been a source of vulnerability but also a reservoir of strength. Three brothers and their families, along with their parents, have had what is called a “joint family” arrangement for decades.
For the past nine years, each brother and his family has occupied a spacious floor in a four-story building in north-west Delhi. The brothers and their respective sons work together in different companies.
During normal times, each branch of the family is consumed with their own routines – work, children, friends, exercise. At first, the lockdown was a period of unusual satisfaction. With everyone hanging out at home, all Gargs often gathered for lunch or dinner. There were endless hands with cards and games of hop hop and freeze mark on the terrace. Men in the family “suddenly became a chef” and began trying new recipes, Mukul said.
The family was hypervigilant when taking precautions against the virus. They stayed inside. Only one person at a time went to the grocery store to buy supplies for the entire household. They developed a ritual to sanitize the person who acted who was about spreading “every visible body part” with disinfectant, says Mukul.
At the end of April, one of Mukul’s uncles began to feel weak and feverish. Initially, the family thought it was a common flu. A few days later, his aunt Anita became ill. Then Mukul’s parents developed both fever, as did his grandmother.
“We were convinced that because we had been extremely careful, coronavirus could not happen to us,” said Mukul’s mother, Meena Devi, 58. “But then, one by one, everyone came down with a fever.”
Still, Gargs hesitated to be tested and hoped it would work. They were also afraid: They were worried that they would be exhausted if they tested positive and even placed in an institutional quarantine. Just in case, everyone in the family began to isolate themselves in their rooms on their respective floors.
After five days of fever, Anita began to have difficulty breathing. She was tested for coronavirus, and the next day the results came back positive. “It all came down after that,” Mukul wrote in a blog post describing the family’s experience that has been viewed more than 400,000 times.
Anita would prove to be the most serious case in the family. After her condition deteriorated, she was admitted to a private hospital. “That’s when the panic hit hard,” said her son, Abhishek, 26.
But the virus also behaved unpredictably. Mukuland Abhishek’s 90-year-old grandfather, Shyamlal, tested positive but showed no symptoms at all. Their 87-year-old grandmother, Beena, had a month-long fever, along with cough and headaches, but her condition never deteriorated to the point that they felt she should be hospitalized. A 29-year-old cousin and his wife tested negative. Four children under the age of 6 were either not tested or tested negative.
Mukul trained as a doctor before completing an MBA and joined his father’s plastic packaging business. He and the younger adults helped coordinate care, delivering acetaminophen, host syrup and vitamin supplements. The family was fortunate enough to have financial resources to help them through the illness, Mukul said.
For Meena, Mukul’s mother, the disease included fever, cough, headache and body pain that lasted for almost two weeks. She spent her days listening to devotional music and prayed for the family’s recovery, without seeing her grandchildren. Her mother-in-law would drop meals outside the door. She spent almost a month confined to her room.
An important turning point came when Mukul’s aunt Anita was able to return home after ten days in the hospital, where she had received oxygen treatment. Neighbors clapped and rang bells from their balconies as she walked in. The family threw flowers.
How the family first became infected remains a mystery. They speculate that Mukul’s uncle, the first person to get sick, may have been affected by the virus while buying food, but there is no way to know for sure. When they became ill, there were no other cases in the area.
In early June, after they all tested negative, the family finally reunited over dinner, their first time together in weeks. There was laughter, tasty vegetarian food and a sweet custard for dessert. Being able to hug her cousin’s children after so long was “an amazing feeling,” Abhishek said.
There was also painful news. Two distant relatives of the family have died of the virus in recent weeks, says Mukul. Both had called to check in on Gargs and offer moral support during their fight with covid-19.
“It’s not an easy disease to conquer,” Mukul said. “We were simply lucky.”
Tania Dutta contributed to this report.