COVID-19’s Gender Gap

Apr 26, 2020 by

by John Barry, Quillette:

When Hilary Clinton said in 1998 that “women have always been the primary victims of war,” it sent a chill down the spine of many. It is a questionable piece of emotional accounting to calculate that, even though men die in greater numbers than women—often after being drafted unwillingly into combat—the impact on women is greater because they lose male relatives, become refugees, and are left with the responsibility of raising children alone.

But if you think Clinton’s accounting was reasonable, then you will have no problem with the narrative around the gender death gap in the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. You might have noticed that in the media (for example, the BBC, the Guardian), and even in the world of health (for example, the World Health Organisation and the Lancet), a commonly recurring narrative has developed around the pandemic: More men are dying, but the real victims are women. Moreover, this narrative usually implies that men’s deaths are largely due to men’s poor decisions about health behaviour.

Are men’s deaths their own fault?

The Lancet suggests men’s deaths are related to “behaviours associated with masculine norms.” What do they mean by this? Well, there is no doubt that some behaviours can impact health, and some of these behaviours show sex differences. For example, men smoke cigarettes more than women do, and wash their hands less. Both of these behaviours have been suggested as the reason why men die more from COVID-19, mainly because hand-washing reduces the chance of infection, and smoking reduces lung capacity, making it easier for the coronavirus to take hold there.

However, neither of these explanations stand up well to scrutiny.

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