Experts are unsure exactly why this might be. It may in part be due to differences in biology. Suggestions have been made, for example, that it might be because men and women have a different immune response, and that men’s immune systems may not activate in the same way as women’s to fight the virus. But lifestyle and behaviour are also likely to play a role.
For a start, men are more likely to have underlying health problems relevant to COVID-19 – such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and some chronic lung diseases. This is in part because men are more likely to engage in risky behaviour such as smoking, drinking and drug-taking.
Research also seems to indicate that some men may take personal hygiene – such as handwashing – less seriously than women. This could be due to the fact that cleanliness is often associated with femininity, domesticity and beautification.
However, the writer Caroline Criado-Perez has also pointed out that because most medical research focuses on male bodies, there is a lack of understanding about why women may be better able to fend off this virus.
Loneliness and social isolation
The COVID-19 pandemic has also highlighted the different roles men and women are still expected to play in society – men are not only less likely to take care of themselves, but also less likely to be involved in caring for others.
It is striking how much women are depended on to deliver both low-paid and unpaid care work – whether for children, disabled people, older people, or those in ill health. Indeed, the pandemic is placing additional caring responsibilities on women.
COVID-19 is forcing people to reflect upon human fragility, mutuality and interdependence. But gender norms also require men to be invulnerable – always strong and self-sufficient.
Men, who also tend to socialise more in groups in public, may take social distancing less seriously than women. They may find it difficult to accept they need help, too – seeing it as “unmanly” to do so.
Older men in particular are more likely to experience loneliness and social isolation – and this could put them at increased risk of mental health problems.
Gender norms also expect men to be powerful and in control. So while many men may relish the opportunity to be more involved at home, some have used it to assert more dominance and control over their partners and children.
For many women and children, the home is the most dangerous place to be. The UK’s National Domestic Abuse Helpline has seen a 25% increase in calls since lockdown began – which highlights how quarantine can compound domestic and sexual abuse.
Porn sites have also seen increased traffic and some are offering free access during lockdown. Campaigners have warned that this, along with an increased reliance on technology, could contribute to a rise in online harassment and sexual abuse.
Responses to COVID-19
The UK government and its nearly all male “war-cabinet”, for example, declared “war” on the coronavirus. This is a problematic analogy as what is mainly needed to tackle COVID-19 is care, social solidarity and community support – not fighting and violence.
These patriarchal discourses can have serious implications for government policy, such as encouraging overly militaristic, authoritarian approaches, and prioritising male-dominated sectors of the economy and society. For instance, women are more likely to be in temporary, informal or precarious work which falls outside the protection packages being established.
There is also a danger that, as with previous crises, government support will prioritise industries seen as “strongest for the economy” – and dominated by men – such as aviation, car production and construction. This could again result in vital sectors where women are more prominent being neglected: such as education, care and retail.
This is why there is an urgent need for gender analysis of government measures related to COVID-19, and the impact these have on different social groups. There must also be a dramatic increase in funding for services to help those at risk of domestic and sexual abuse.
But more broadly this crisis is a huge opportunity to reassess political priorities and gender relations. It offers the chance to overturn years of neglect by recognising the essential contribution of care to society. This will not only help to encourage men to play their part, but it will go some way towards shifting harmful gender norms in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.