Understanding and Acting responsibly in coliving times of Coronavirus


In the beginning of March I returned to Bangalore from Pondicherry after a week of leisure trip. My trip had coincided with some canceled community events and sights of a lot of mask-wearing people across the city. Having seen epidemics in the past, my family urged me to maintain my strict cleanliness routines - for which I am not very famous. They started pushing me to wash clothes immediately after returning home from anywhere in the city to pressing lift buttons with gloves on.

Listening to their advice, I bought some sanitizer, detergent soaps, and wipes for my apartment in Bangalore - a flat I share with two other roommates. With news that the coronavirus is already quietly circulating in local areas, I made some lifestyle changes like washing my hands often (20-25 times a day) and getting holed up in my room and avoiding all non-essential human contact. But, the problem was, despite my efforts to stay safe, the people I share the flat with didn’t have the same sense of concern. Within days after my return to Bangalore, my roommate developed cold and cough. “It’s probably just my allergy coming back,” he told me and my other flatmates, adding that he thought it was unnecessary and too much hype around the coronavirus. “This is no different from any general cold and cough. I don’t see the point in altering my behavior.”

All of my flatmates continued taking strolls around parks, going to the gym, attending events around the city, and telling me how my fears are just a result of me being mama’s boy. My frustration and helplessness mounted as I monitored the rising number of cases across the world and a steady rise of cases in India and saw my flatmate’s unapologetic behavior and terrible hygiene.

It’s hard to tell your flatmate, “I know you haven’t been washing your hands” without sounding rude. I realize in my mind that I sometimes sound like one who cares too much to my so-called modern flatmates, maybe even hysterical.

So far I did not hoard sanitizer or food. I’ve controlled the itch to get a bunch of face masks. Instead, I’m simply telling everyone I care about and to my flatmates to take preventative measures, such as greater hygiene and social distancing. The personal responsibility practices I’ve taken from my family have kept my hometown relatively healthy in the current situations. But again, it’s hard to tell your flatmate, “I know you haven’t been washing your hands” without sounding aggressive.

After holding myself up in my room for a few days, until my flatmate recovered from his cold, I realized this isolation was not only mentally and physically unsustainable but also not useful for my own given the laid back attitudes of my flatmates.

What I realized is that my health is connected to the people I share a flat with. The same is the case with the thousands living across the city in a high-density city like Bangalore, where more than 80% of the rental population lives in the community, PG’s or coliving due to the expensive housing costs. As the coronavirus continues to spread and anxiety is at the top, flatmates around the city and the country, and the world — should be having conversations about the risks of co-living as coronavirus spreads.

I decided to see if I was the only one feeling anxious about potential coronavirus exposure due to their flatmates’ habits. I hence reached out to my friend Gagan Singhal, a management professional who lives with three flatmates in a SimplyGuest home, told me it’s a conversation his flatmates had, but that they have decided to remain calm for now and be a bit more careful. “My flatmates and I have been discussing the importance of frequent handwashing,” Gagan said.

In Bangalore, tighter spaces of community living, PG’s for professionals, and students are pretty common as housing costs are on the rise. I then decided to talk to those managing high-density coliving spaces and PG’s in my vicinity to find out if they are doing something about it.

One of the owners said that we could delay coronavirus spread but not stop it completely. It’s already more spread than we realize. We just have to make sure that we delay it enough so that there is no sudden outbreak, and the medical system gets overloaded.

A lot more people have started discussing it in the last few days. A lot of upcoming community events, colleges, classes are being canceled. It appears that PG’s, Coliving providers are taking some preventive measures, but no one has any concrete steps in place if an outbreak occurs in their properties tomorrow. There are no clear guidelines from authorities on what to do.

Many people are practicing social distancing and are relying on the information being provided by media and other social channels. Many people are also making homemade sanitizers with aloe vera gel and alcohol as these are sold out in most of the shops in the city.

There is a need for strict guidelines and steps to be followed by people in case an outbreak happens in their vicinity so that there is no panic and we can fight it in a better way. Given the nature of these living situations and infrastructure, it could be challenging to quarantine or deal with an outbreak.

Currently, there are no guidelines on how to know that people are having a regular cold or coronavirus and what precautions to take. Should the owners send the person home, can he push him/her to go home? There need to be directives enforced by law to help the coliving companies and PG’s manage it better as these can be nodal points in mass spreading.

Every coliving apartment or PG’s in the city is a representation of the entire country. Back in my flat, as awkward as it was, I decided to sit down with my flatmates to express my discomfort at the levels of precaution we were currently taking. With increasingly dire warnings, my flatmates kind of agreed they might’ve been a bit too easy-going on this as the news started reporting more and more cases.

The most common areas in a coliving or Paying Guest (PG) setup where the chances of transmission are high are lift, laundry area, community hall, entertainment room, and canteen. All of us staying in such a setup should follow restraint and precaution while using these areas and use them only when absolutely necessary.

Although they have not been up to the mark but lately, I’ve seen an improvement in their behavior, and I feel relieved seeing more handwashing and other sanitary etiquettes in the flat. I’m confident these changes will decrease our exposure to the coronavirus, and as a result, limit the spread to our vulnerable friends and family and, subsequently, within our community.

Health is collective influence and a collective work; when it comes to infectious diseases like coronavirus, people saying “I have a strong immune system” or “Nothing will happen to me” are very dangerous when translated into a refusal of necessary sanitary behavior.

Another interesting dilemma that I saw in my flatmates was going home versus staying back. If you travel to home considering it a safer place but what if you take infection with you. It can be dangerous for old folks at your home. A lot of people are calling it a calculated risk, but it’s worth taking into consideration that you would rather stay back and fight it out yourself or you cannot do it alone and want to risk your old folks having it.

While there is a coordinated government response in India that is better than some of the countries in the world, our everyday decisions to limit the spread of the disease have to be our resolve. Many acts done privately and voluntarily are equally critical to stopping the spread of this deadly virus. Having plans in place in co-living situations and having socially intimidating conversations sooner rather than later is crucial to mitigate the higher risks associated with today’s times. Better now then never.