Enough already. When people try to be cheerful about social distancing and working from home, noting that William Shakespeare and Isaac Newton did some of their best work while England was ravaged by the plague, there is an obvious response: Neither of them had child-care responsibilities.
Shakespeare spent most of his career in London, where the theaters were, while his family lived in Stratford-upon-Avon. During the plague of 1606, the playwright was lucky to be spared from the epidemic—his landlady died at the height of the outbreak—and his wife and two adult daughters stayed safely in the Warwickshire countryside. Newton, meanwhile, never married or had children. He saw out the Great Plague of 1665–6 on his family’s estate in the east of England, and spent most of his adult life as a fellow at Cambridge University, where his meals and housekeeping were provided by the college.
For those with caring responsibilities, an infectious-disease outbreak is unlikely to give them time to write King Lear or develop a theory of optics. A pandemic magnifies all existing inequalities (even as politicians insist this is not the time to talk about anything other than the immediate crisis). Working from home in a white-collar job is easier; employees with salaries and benefits will be better protected; self-isolation is less taxing in a spacious house than a cramped apartment. But one of the most striking effects of the coronavirus will be to send many couples back to the 1950s. Across the world, women’s independence will be a silent victim of the pandemic.
Purely as a physical illness, the coronavirus appears to affect women less severely. But in the past few days, the conversation about the pandemic has broadened: We are not just living through a public-health crisis, but an economic one. As much of normal life is suspended for three months or more, job losses are inevitable. At the same time, school closures and household isolation are moving the work of caring for children from the paid economy—nurseries, schools, babysitters—to the unpaid one. The coronavirus smashes up the bargain that so many dual-earner couples have made in the developed world: We can both work, because someone else is looking after our children. Instead, couples will have to decide which one of them takes the hit.