COVID-19 impacts all aspects of family life and inter-generational relationships, through housing and informal systems of social care in Greece. In the centre of the political discourse is home and its association with care.
‘Stay safe’ is the wish among people both in personal and work-related communication as well as the “order” from the state officials all around the world in countries that have been affected by Covid-19. This injunction is often paired with ‘stay home’. Even in the case of states with the luck of adequate healthcare without extremes of healthcare inequality, people are strongly encouraged to stay safe at home and within their own means as long as possible. ‘Self-care’ is highlighted as a one-way street both from the government and from the people who realize that the healthcare system cannot support them efficiently.
Care provision in Greece is mainly self-regulated by the family and the kinship network. Home was in the centre of official and informal campaigns that recommended strongly or ordered people to ‘stay home’ in order to stay safe. For achieving that according to officials’ recommendations worldwide (WHO, 2020), one should have a safe home with high hygienic standards and care support. These parameters: home and care are inevitable connected with family and especially women in the Greek situation.
The importance of the social institution of family in Southern Europe has deep historical roots (Ferrera 2010). The Greek state was always inactive in this field, promoting home-ownership and framing housing as a self-regulated need supported by favourable taxation. Housing fortunes are dependent on family welfare and people enjoy the housing solutions that each family could offer. Family members employ specific housing strategies to strengthen family welfare by collectivising problems and means, providing care services and maintaining a residential, financial and/or sentimental proximity to family members. This scheme of kinship’s proximity and reciprocal support provides security and financial relief to family members (Mantouvalou & Mavridou, 1993). The close proximity of extended family homes has always been a favoured pattern, as it facilitated intra-family care services (Allen et al., 2004; Maloutas, 2008). Familistic housing strategies include the late emancipation from the parental home, intergenerational co-residence, and residential spatial proximity to members of the same extended family.
Extended intergenerational cohabitation in Greece is a culturally accepted practice as 55% of people aged between 25-34 live with their parents (Eurostat, 2018). Extended stays or returns to the parental home can be explained by the poor performance of the labour market, the absence of welfare support for housing, the limited availability of high quality and affordable rented housing and the cultural norm of relying on the family (Serracant, 2015; Minquez, 2016). Considering the above, many Greeks are supported by a ‘cushion’ of intergenerational solidarity and family welfare (Serracant, 2015) resembling a ‘substitute for the limitations of state intervention’ (Martin, 1996, 31).
Proximity of family and kinship households is also a practice that is connected with the activities of family welfare. One particular concept that involves housing provision and proximity is the ‘family polykatoikia (apartment building)’. It regards a detached house that is owned by a family and is extended in order to accommodate other family members, especially the oldest and youngest (Mantouvalou & Mavridou, 1993). Parents invest in this scheme (of the family polykatoikia) in order to produce more houses in their plot. They do this by adding extra floors, thus creating a construction that is many storeys high. Inside these buildings, family members live almost exclusively, meaning that a stranger may be faced with mistrust and hostility. The vicinity of family households also produces an area of support in terms of family welfare, with child or elderly care and general repairs taking place here (Allen et al., 2004).
The main care-provider in the family is the woman with her unpaid work and dedication to kin’s needs. The reciprocity of support across generations inside the ‘welfare society’ (i.e. families, extended relatives and neighbours) is assisted by women’s devotion to and work done for their families (Martin, 1996). The work conducted by women includes informal healthcare services; caring for the frail, the elderly and the young; helping with housework; shopping; and providing companionship (Vaiou, 1996) activities that were brought to the spotlight during the new crisis but still without recognising the ‘Carer’.
Family welfare is both the weapon and the weakness of people in Greece against the new Covid-19 related crisis. It is a system that contains its own inequalities but when resources and capacities permit, this institution guarantees housing and care support for its members in need but on the other hand it does not allow the necessary distance between people in risk. Informal carers can, of course, be virus carriers. The way this supportive network is structured with co-dependency and proximity does not allow for people, that have to, to isolate. In the absence of housing and care provision by the welfare state, its self-regulation is a one-way that may lead to a dead-end as its structure may damage the whole effort.
Indicatively, old or people at risk live in the same house or in the same family polykatoikia with people that are still working, kids that are going to school or active in external activities (when possible within the related measures) and may bring home the virus. On the other hand, those who at risk do not suffer from loneliness as they are experiencing this tough period together with their loved ones even though they may be the ones to risk their wellbeing because of this proximity.
Even vulnerable people that do not live in proximity with their kinship network are assisted mainly by their relatives. This situation may be safer for them even if they feel lonelier. However, a support network that it is not comprised of or supported by professionals in healthcare may sometimes inadvertently put the supported person at risk. The main carers – usually the female members of the kin – are typically over-burdened by care activities that are now more demanding both inside their household but also at dependent family households. This puts family and especially women under a lot of pressure in a period with significant stress and insecurity.
Family housing and care strategies that involve cohabitation or proximity often lead to a lack of privacy and isolation. Privacy is a luxury that ‘in each civilization, as it advanced, those who could afford it chose the luxury of a withdrawing place’ (Schwartz, 1968, 743). According to this, people in Greece today do not have this luxury as housing is supported by strategies that sustain and strengthen the institution of family and its members’ interdependence. Nowadays isolation is not only a luxury but a necessity for certain population groups, ironically they are also the ones that are the most dependent on care services that are granted by the family and this seems like a vicious circle.
This new crisis is piled on top of the previous global financial crisis that stagnated the country economically and socially, shrinking the family’s resources and capacities to offer support to its members. However, the state still relies on these informal institution and functions in order to avoid the cost of welfare. For more than a decade, economic stagnation is threatening the strongest pillar of Greece’s familistic society – the main welfare provider, the family (Moreno & Mari- Klose, 2013) –removing any cost obligation from both employers and the state (Papadopoulos & Roumpakis, 2013). The future forecast is extremely worrying for Greece as it is going to be the most affected EU country financially with a downturn of around 9,7% and unemployment rising to 20% in 2020. Even during the previous period family absorbed the turbulence created by the crisis by offering housing and care solutions to its members but its deficits were coming into stagnation. For how long can family and especially women bare this heavy burden of care and housing provision and how safe is that in the new circumstances? As long as state exploits the self-regulation of the crises’ problems, there is no exit from the vicious circle but a rapid spiral path to family exhaustion.
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