How the Coronavirus Will Send Us Back to the 1950s
Pandemics affect men and women differently.
by Helen Lewis, The Atlantic, March 19, 2020
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.
Many stories of arrogance are related to this pandemic. Among the most exasperating is the West’s failure to learn from history: the Ebola crisis in three African countries in 2014; Zika in 2015–6; and recent outbreaks of SARS, swine flu, and bird flu.
Academics who studied these episodes found that they had deep, long-lasting effects on gender equality. “Everybody’s income was affected by the Ebola outbreak in West Africa,” Julia Smith, a health-policy researcher at Simon Fraser University, told The New York Times this month, but “men’s income returned to what they had made pre-outbreak faster than women’s income.”
The distorting effects of an epidemic can last for years, Clare Wenham, an assistant professor of global-health policy at the London School of Economics, told me.
“We also saw declining rates of childhood vaccination [during Ebola].” Later, when these children contracted preventable diseases, their mothers had to take time off work.
At an individual level, the choices of many couples over the next few months will make perfect economic sense. What do pandemic patients need? Looking after. What do self-isolating older people need? Looking after. What do children kept home from school need? Looking after.
All this looking after—this unpaid caring labor—will fall more heavily on women, because of the existing structure of the workforce.
“It’s not just about social norms of women performing care roles; it’s also about practicalities,” Wenham added. “Who is paid less? Who has the flexibility?