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Covid-19 through a gendered lens

  • Published at 07:40 am May 20th, 2020
Climate Tribune_May 2020_Covid-19 through a gendered lens
Photo: Pixabay

It is crucial that we take a step back in this moment to assess why men are dying more while women are taking on greater responsibilities

Smoking, drinking, not washing hands, a lack of estrogen and an additional X chromosome are all reasons why men are dying more than women when it comes to Covid-19. Behaviourally and biologically, men and women are different, causing men to die anywhere from 10% to more than two times as many women globally. 

The difference in death rates is not the only gendered effect, as women are taking on more unpaid care work at home during this era of social distancing and treating Covid-19 patients more but with less pay than their men counterparts. The effect the virus has had is similar to that of climate change disasters, and it is crucial that we take a step back in this moment to assess why men are dying more while women are taking on greater responsibilities, both at home and in the public domain.

Let’s start with biology. The evidence is clear – in China, 64% of men compared to 36% of women suffering from Covid-19 died from the disease, according to the Global Health 50/50 Initiative. 

The pattern is confirmed in France, Germany, Italy, South Korea, and Spain. In Italy, 71% of the deaths were male. Two times as many men as women died in Spain. Although men and women are infected at similar rates, men are dying more. One biological reason could be that women have stronger antiviral responses, as they have higher levels of oestrogen. 

Women also have the advantage of an additional X chromosome, which harbours many genes that regulate the immune response. Men have only one. Furthermore, women’s bodies inherently function differently, as they are built to carry a foetus for nine months without rejecting it as an invader. These gendered differences are already evident in blood samples collected from Covid-19 patients in China.

There are several social and behavioural reasons why men are more likely to die if infected by Covid-19. Firstly, men smoke and drink much more than women, causing a higher incidence of cardiovascular and pulmonary disease. Men are less likely to follow public health advice and seek treatment when they first start exhibiting symptoms. 

Furthermore, men wash their hands less than women do. According to a 2013 Michigan State University field study, women wash their hands significantly more often, use soap more often, and wash their hands for a longer period of time than men. Each of these behaviours leaves men more susceptible to the virus than women.

Despite taking more men’s lives, women’s lives have become more stressful in the era of Covid-19. Women are left with more unpaid care work, such as raising children in the wake of school closures, looking after an ill family, cooking, and cleaning, without adequate support from men. 

With responsibilities heightened and less economic stability, women are facing more mental illness. One American study reports that 16% of women, compared to 11% of men, are experiencing severe mental illness as a result of the pandemic. 

For many women, staying home means facing unrelenting domestic violence. Already cases have shot up worldwide. In China, local police stations had three times as many domestic violence cases reported in February compared to the number in the same month of 2019, according to Wan Fei, the founder of anti-domestic violence non-profit. 

In France, cases increased by 32% in one week, according to the Secretary of State for Gender Equality Marlène Schiappa. Furthermore, women make up 70% of the healthcare workforce worldwide and are the main caretakers of Covid-19 patients. 

Despite their greater numbers in healthcare, the disparity in pay remains, as women make 28% less than their men counterparts in the field. For all these reasons, the Covid-19 pandemic brings to the forefront of the existing gender disparities in society. 

This disparity is not a surprise considering that climate change disasters highlight similar gendered effects, due more to social constructs than biology. For example, the 1991 cyclone in Bangladesh killed women disproportionately more than men because of gender-differentiated roles and lack of access to and control of resources. 

The same can be said for cyclones Sidr and Aila, which hit in the years 2007 and 2009 respectively. In the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, which hit the United States in 2005, rates of gender-based violence in Mississippi increased from 4.6 per 100,000 to 16.3 per 100,000 a year later, according to Anastario et al (2009). Women who survived each of these climate disasters had to care for their children despite inadequate support and increased violence.

Knowing all this, one might wonder what they can do to 1) reduce the death rate for men and 2) improve the quality of life for women. At the global level, nations need to step up in collecting data on gender differences in Covid-19 deaths. This information should be used to shape public health messaging. 

Men, especially elderly men, need to know that their risk is greater to encourage better hygiene. At the domestic level, men need to support women in caretaking activities, such as raising children, cooking, and cleaning. 

This work is valuable and crucial despite being unpaid. Lastly, whether man or woman, it is important that we take a step back and become aware of our positions in society, including our power, privileges, and roles. 

Tania Ahmed is working at the International Centre for Climate Change and Development as a research officer. Her interest lies in gender, health, and the environment.

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