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Coronavirus Shut-Ins Are Revealing The Shoddy Divider Between Work & Home Life

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Robert Kelly, a political science professor at Pusan National University in South Korea, was live-to-air in a BBC interview, explaining all the ramifications of South Korean President Park Guen-hye’s impeachment, when in wobbled his delightful kids, crashing through the illusion that he was in an office somewhere. Kelly made for an international curiosity back in 2017, and now he is all of us.

Thanks to the spread of the novel coronavirus, we’re trapped inside our homes, sequestered with tiny people who plan on waltzing into our offices, our bedrooms, our bathrooms whenever their little hearts desire it. Where business-casual attire and a commute once signaled at the separation of our work and home selves, the next few weeks will see us commuting into the spare bedroom in a work shirt and pajama pants, so to speak. Whatever flimsy ideas we had about keeping work at work and home at home have toppled.

And that’s not all of it. Our economy is built upon tucking the kids away with lower-paid workers (nannies, teachers, babysitters, day-care workers) who keep our lives organized, tidy and free from our mini creatures (whom we obviously love and adore). When everything turns upside-down, as is happening right now, it wreaks havoc on the economy and on the healthcare system currently burdened with getting us out of the coronavirus mess — healthcare workers included.

The kids are home, but what happens when the parents are doctors and nurses? Ominously, 38% of registered nurses have children at home, per the 2008 National Sample Survey of Registered Nurses. So if schools shut, you risk pulling the rug out from under hospitals and other places that desperately need these nurses. If the healthcare workers go to work, the kids might suffer, and containment efforts might be compromised as kids roam about and intermingle in the general population. This riddle is already playing out for American families.

Bing Jing Yu, a violinist with the Lyric Opera in Chicago, shares custody of her kids half the time with her husband, a doctor. But since their babysitter is elderly and can’t come to the house, they don’t have many options when it comes to the quarantine.

“The kids are going to stay on their own,” Yu says of her 8-, 14-, and 16-year-old kids.

The other option? “Doing what we’ve specifically been told not to do..." like bringing the kids out in public or having an elderly babysitter risk their own health. "We have no choice,” she says.

Tracey Janzen works for a large ventilator company in Chicago, so it’s “all hands on deck, as we need to make sure those who need it can get it,” Janzen says.

System limitations don’t allow for everyone in her company to work from home. While her husband can work from home some days, they’ll have to patch together child-care coverage with help from friends and family the remainder of the days.

The kids “see Grammy on a regular basis, but we worry because of her age,” Janzen says.

Still, they have few other options during this emergency.

I’m really at a loss as to how I am going to swing this: I’m concerned about being able to work at my most productive state with her at home all day every day.

Upping the screen time is the plan for Nasreen Stump, who already works from home while her husband is out of the house as a paramedic.

“The tricky part will be if my husband gets held for mandatory overtime or needs to be quarantined,” Stump says. “Then there will be no relief.”

Typically, we use our village to help raise our children. We use babysitters, grandparents, schools, and other help. But when that village is quarantined in their own little huts, then our little families become the entirety of that village.

It’s hard to run a business when your child interrupts you during a conference call because he needs to poop (this happened in real life for Karina Feldmann, a Brazilian national whose 5-year-old son popped into the conference call for this specific reason); and it’s difficult to treat handle issues when your children are holding World War III in the next room.

“I’m panicked,” says Angela Taylor, senior manager for packing communications at the Ferrara Candy Co. “I’m really at a loss as to how I am going to swing this: I’m concerned about being able to work at my most productive state with her at home all day every day.”

Based on what’s happened in other countries, the tech systems we’ve set up aren’t prepared to host millions online simultaneously to work from home either.

In China, on the first day that people worked remotely and home-schooled, tens of millions of those who logged onto WeChat Work and DingTalk (these are China’s widely used workplace apps) crashed.

As work-life balance craters, the extent to which workplaces are truly accommodating for those who don't have a partner quietly picking up the slack at home will become more clear. Feminists have been making the argument for years that egalitarian conditions at work are what women want and need, not a kind of equality that allows them to simply work as long in the office as male peers.

That kind of change usually seems impossible to attain, but for once, for the forseeable future, we'll all have no choice but to close the laptop and tend to our children.

If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support. You can find all of Romper’s parents + coronavirus coverage here, and Bustle’s constantly updated, general “what to know about coronavirus” here.