Is Covid-19 Affecting Men And Women Differently? Here's What We Know
The coronavirus pandemic has brought dozens of social issues into sharp focus, from income inequality to the limitations of healthcare systems. As the total number of cases continues to increase, researchers are also looking at another aspect of the outbreak: how Covid-19 impacts men and women differently.
Early evidence shows that more men than women are dying from the disease. A recent study on patients treated in Wuhan, China, where the first Covid-19 case was detected, showed that the number of men who died was 2.4 times more than that of women.
Interestingly, a similar trend was seen in the data from the 2003 outbreak of Sars, which also belonged to the coronavirus family. In Hong Kong, for example, 21.9 percent of men with Sars died compared with 13.2 percent of women.
But is this due to the biological differences between men and women? Or are social, economic and lifestyle factors at play? We take a closer look.
Scientists say one of the reasons for sex differences in mortality rates in Covid-19 patients could be immunity. A recent research paper from the Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan found that in the most severe cases among the 331 Covid-19 patients it studied, the women had a higher level of antibodies than the men.
In a different study on oestrogen, it is found that the primary female sex hormone may have an effect on a protein called angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2), which is said to be used by the coronavirus as an entry route into cells. We still don’t fully understand the intricate workings of oestrogen, but there is evidence that it can contribute to an early immune response to help fight a viral infection. A clinical trial to test this hypothesis has begun in the US, overseen by the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University in New York.
A study recently published by medical journal Lancet also found that men may be more vulnerable due to certain ailments that tend to affect them more than women, such as cardiovascular diseases and diabetes. It states that older adult males with chronic comorbidities, which refers to the presence of more than one disorder in the same person, are particularly susceptible to getting infected by Covid-19 due to their weaker immune systems.
Behaviourial differences have also been highlighted as one of the possible reasons for men and women’s different responses to Covid-19. In countries such as China and South Korea, where male mortality rates are nearly or at least 50 percent greater than female rates, scientists are suspecting that this could be because more men engage in unhealthy lifestyle habits such as smoking, which affects the lungs and increases the risk of problems with the immune system.
China has the largest smoking population in the world, with about 316 million smokers. Just over 2 percent of the country’s female population smokes, compared to more than half of its male population.
Another factor to consider is the different attitudes towards healthcare. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), men are generally less likely to seek out help for their health than women despite facing the same disease. This could be linked to certain cultural expectations of masculinity and notions of help-seeking behaviour.
In addition to mortality rates, researchers are also observing Covid-19’s gendered effects on areas such as employment and family.
Globally, women are more likely to lose their job as more are engaged in temporary employment. According to the International Labor Organization, women represent less than 40 percent of the world's total employment numbers but make up 57 percent of those working on a part-time basis.
As countries across Southeast Asia implemented some form of a lockdown, restricting employees in “non-essential” services from working as they normally would, companies have cut wages and laid off staff as they struggle to cut their losses, with temporary workers likely to be the first to be shown the door.
For certain markets, such as Indonesia, women make up a large proportion of the workforce in some of the hardest-hit industries such as textiles, hospitality, tourism and domestic work. At present, it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of female migrant workers have been forced to return home, facing the loss of income indefinitely.
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Venture-backed female entrepreneurs across the region are also facing additional pressure to keep their business afloat, given the shorter runway they tend to receive from investors.
According to a pre-Covid survey by HSBC, women secure an average of 5 percent less capital than their male counterparts. In normal times, it's an injustice. In today's climate, it could be the difference between a company collapsing or making it to the other side of the pandemic alive.
Home-based issues have also risen since countries went into lockdown. Across the region, schools have been closed to control the coronavirus outbreak. This could translate into more pressure being placed on women who are, in some cultures, responsible for cooking and caring for the family.
In Malaysia, this traditional mindset of gender roles even resulted in a widely criticised advice from the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development. Using a series of infographics, it suggested to women how they should maintain their personal appearance, talk to their husbands and entertain their children in order to keep everyone happy at home. After a public outcry over its sexist nature, the guidelines have been removed.
With families forced to remain in close quarters with each other for weeks or months on end due to a national lockdown, tensions in the household can run high. In many countries, this has led to an increase in reports of domestic violence against women, according to the United Nations.
In Singapore, the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) women’s helpline saw a 33 percent surge in calls related to family violence in February, compared to the same period last year. In Malaysia, calls to helplines have doubled and in Australia, the number of domestic violence cases have reportedly increased by 75 percent.
In light of this, United Nations secretary-general António Guterres issued a statement on April 6 calling on governments to implement measures to prevent and redress violence against women. This includes categorising shelters an essential service and providing safe and secure support platforms for women to seek help.
On a local level, Malaysian social activist and Gen.T honouree Syed Azmi has taken things into his own hands to encourage families to live more harmoniously together under lockdown. "We're very concerned about preventing clashes between husbands and wives in the first place."
One of the ways he has been doing so is by initiating public contests on his personal Facebook platform, asking women to share how they are coping with the pandemic creatively. "I wanted to hear how women—and their husbands—have successfully used the resources they have at home to survive. I wanted to also inspire others reading these stories to think about how they, too, can get through this period peacefully and create opportunities for themselves during this time. After all, this is the best time to innovate!"