Men’s Health, Women’s Shoulders: The Gendered Impact of Contracting and Healing from COVID-19

by Laura Biscaglia and Marion Provencher
Published by The Graduate Press in French, 28 March 2020.

Disclaimer: we are not data scientists, but all that we report on is based on findings from established sources (if you believe in conspiracy theories about COVID-19, none of the sources we cite are going to be reliable for you, sorry). 

COVID-19 is coming for you, gentlemen. You heard it right. The infamous COVID-19 seems to be killing far more men than women. For us women, fate may be on our side this time. After all, we already have to endure period pains, slipping bra straps, awkward ‘so-why-don’t-you-have-children-yet’ conversations with relatives we see once a year, or the pink tax even on the cheapest shampoo at Lidl. COVID-19, please tell us, why are you sparing us? What’s going on? We are not used to being the lucky(ier) ones.  

Let’s take a look at the data. In Italy, Europe’s worst affected country, men are 60% more likely to be infected, and 70% of people who died were men. The Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that while the chances of catching the virus have been similar for Chinese women and men, the death rate for men has reached 2.8%, compared to 1.7% for women. We know: it takes a leap of faith to trust these figures, especially after seeing how creative governments have been at deciding what’s reported and what’s kept in their own version of Harry Potter’s Chamber of Secrets. And Merlin knows that Switzerland has got its share of secrets too.  

But let’s forget for a moment about sketchy government data, and look back at the history of virus outbreaks. Don’t worry, we won’t take you down the rabbit hole of epidemics-related deaths in the history of humanity (but admit it, you would watch that if it was a Netflix true crime docuseries). We’ll keep it short. Men were significantly more affected than women during the SARS and the MERS outbreaks, to the point that death rates among men in Hong Kong were reportedly 50 percent higher. Is this a coincidence? Few things in life are, and a virus people targeting people at random, and accidentally hitting disproportionately more XY chromosomes, is most probably not one of them. 

Just to reiterate, repeat after us: Viral infections are not conspiring against the patriarchy. Take a breath. COVID-19 has not been grown in labs by radical feminists to wipe out the male population. (Oops, did we just start a new conspiracy theory?). We were saying: Your privilege is not going anywhere. You’ll be okay.

That leaves us with the real question: why are more men than women affected by COVID-19? Be warned, we are about to open a Pandora’s box on biological sex, health, and masculinity. Topics we all love to talk about, we know. You’re welcome.

There are a lot of theories on why men are more at risk than women. Some point to biological factors, other to sociological ones. In our opinion, a middle ground is probably the safest bet. It is an undisputed fact that there are underlying biological differences between men and women, including in the way they deal with viral infections of the respiratory tract. This isn’t just a human phenomenon; even female rats seem to deal with these viruses better than their male buddies. It’s not clear why yet, but women tend to have stronger immune system responses, which makes them overwhelmingly more susceptible to autoimmune diseases than men (nay) but also helps many women fight viral pathogens a lot better (yay). Even before the immune system gets involved however, COVID-19 tends to find a more fertile ground in men, who are generally in worse health conditions than their female counterparts. If you are a millennial guy who makes chia seed pudding for breakfast and only drinks filtered water with a pinch of cayenne pepper, please don’t be insulted by this generalisation on men’s health. You are an exception in this world, and we are simply not talking about you.

In part, men are usually in poorer health than women partly because they tend to engage in more risk- taking behaviours, such as smoking and binge drinking. They are also more likely to eat garbage (we dare you to count how many times you’ve seen two ‘manly’ guys compete on Instagram over who makes the best low-fat-low-cal-high-protein-Omega-3-rich raw vegan salad). We are not saying it doesn’t happen, but it’s less likely to be displayed as a sign of pride, a testament of masculinity. Once in a while you might scroll past a vegan-clean-eating-dude on a mission to show how you can have the abs of the Ninja Turtles without immolating a cow a day to the philosophy of ‘my body is my temple’. But these dudes are rare, and definitely less common than the guy who couldn’t care less about what he eats or how much physical activity he does, probably because he wishes so hard he’ll find a girl to bone if he drives a nice car. 

For many of us (men and women), lettuce is for women and rabbits only, and regular doctor appointments are signs of weakness, because ‘being a man means high pain tolerance, so stop whining’. There is evidence that men get less regular check-ups, which are essential to maintaining good health and preventing chronic conditions, and rely instead on self-treatment to withstand pain. It is important to bear in mind that many of the men who are now old (and therefore more at risk to COVID-19) grew up in a world that did not conceive of alternative expressions of masculinity. For some of them, the idea of taking care of themselves probably wasn’t even a thing. 

So, yes, gender norms matter. Not just for girls who go around with a ‘this is what a feminist looks like’ t-shirt, but also for you (men of this world). Gender norms contribute to what is perceived as good or bad, to what is a sign of strength or weakness. Gender norms influence our health: both the way we see and react to it. Are we so surprised that COVID-19 has had a different impact on men and women around the world? Maybe not. 

We have talked about men. So let’s turn our attention towards women. 

But men are dying! What does this possibly have to do with women?’ you might say between two handfuls of Cheetos as you scroll down this article. The answer is: it has so, so much to do with women, you’ll regret having asked. 

You might have heard of the term ‘double burden’. The double burden is what we call the double responsibility of having to work to earn money, while also being responsible for most of a household’s unpaid domestic labour. Unpaid domestic labour is code for all the everyday things one has to do but would rather pay someone else to do it if you won the lottery. They’re your favourite chores: cooking, buying household supplies, cleaning, washing, or caring for kids, sick relatives, and the elderly. But they are not only menial tasks: domestic labour also includes taking care of everyone’s well-being, like convincing your dad to take his heart medicine, or to not go to the pub for a pint during a pandemic. This takes a lot of mental energy

Who do you think does most of the unpaid domestic labour in a household? You guessed it. Now, which segment of the population is most affected by the double burden? Exactly. Still unconvinced? We’ve got numbers to prove it.

According to an International Labour Organisation study of 23 developing and 23 developed countries, women do 2.6 times as much unpaid domestic work than men. Even after taking into consideration paid and unpaid work, women generally work longer hours per day than men. 

Image by UN Women. Redistribute unpaid work. 2016

Returning to COVID-19, the numbers are clear. While men are most at risk, it is women who bear the brunt of it. Confinement or self-isolation increases the double burden on women. Not only do they have to look after their children, since schools and kindergartens are closed, but many also bear the responsibility of managing their households in times of restricted mobility (‘Here’s the grocery list, honey! Don’t forget the kids’ favourite snack!’). Persons confirmed with COVID-19 will need care. Persons who show COVID-19 symptoms will need support. Persons with pre-existing conditions and older people will all need looking after. Who will provide that care?  Formally, mostly women. Women are estimated to be 70% of workers in health and social sectors. In Switzerland, that number goes up to 80% across medical professions. Informally? Also women. Women perform more than two and a half times the unpaid domestic work in ‘normal’ times. Who knows how much worse it will get?

As the pandemic keeps spreading, existing inequalities between men and women are becoming even more evident. And as the casualties of COVID-19, who are reportedly much higher among men than women, continue to rise, many women will be left behind by their partners, fathers, brothers, friends. Women struck by grief, many of them elderly, isolated, financially vulnerable, and at risk of complications of COVID-19. The pandemic is a magnifying glass for the consequences of traditional gender norms on men and women. Everyone is affected by the virus; let us all recognise that men and women are affected in different ways. 

5 comments on “Men’s Health, Women’s Shoulders: The Gendered Impact of Contracting and Healing from COVID-19

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