More Men Than Woman Have Died Of COVID-19. Why Do They Take It Less Seriously?

Even in areas where more women get the virus, men are dying at higher rates.
49 per cent of Canadian women said they were “very worried” about the virus, compared to 30 per cent of men.
49 per cent of Canadian women said they were “very worried” about the virus, compared to 30 per cent of men.

More men than women are dying from COVID-19. So why is it that men take it less seriously?

There are likely medical explanations why a large number of men are dying. But many of the reasons why they take the disease less seriously are behavioural — and a good number of those reasons are dangerous, according to Diana Sarosi, director of policy and campaigns for Oxfam Canada.

When asked if she finds it surprisingly that men, on average, take the pandemic less seriously than women, Sarosi said, “No, not at all.”

“Women are very worried about what they’re seeing in terms of far-reaching and longterm impacts of this pandemic,” she told HuffPost Canada.

Even in places where more women get the virus, men are dying at higher rates

A study published last week in the BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) looked at the 20 countries with the most confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus. Not all 20 countries differentiated by gender, but of the ones that did, the majority — including Canada — reported more confirmed cases of the virus in men than women.

And of those countries, the six that recorded gender in their death rates — China, Italy, France, Germany, Iran and South Korea — all reported that more men died of the virus than women, even though France and South Korea saw higher rates of infected women than men. The deaths in those six countries were between 54 and 71 per cent male.

COVID-19 is too new for any clear answers about why more men are dying than women. It’s possible that there are some genetic factors, Dr. Cara Tannenbaum, scientific director of the Institute of Gender and Health for the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, told Global News — but she was quick to point out that that’s still speculation at this point.

There are also likely behavioural reasons: men tend to smoke and drink more than women, Queen’s University professor and infectious diseases expert Dr. Gerald Evans told Global. And heart and respiratory diseases are also more common in men, and can exacerbate coronavirus symptoms.

Still, men are more likely than women to believe coronavirus fears are “overblown”

Although there are more than 10,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Canada, and over 100 deaths, one in eight Canadians still think the threat is “overblown,” according to an Angus Reid poll released Tuesday.

Another significant finding from the poll: those people are more likely to be male. This isn’t true in every case, but overwhelmingly, the demographics most likely to minimize the crisis are men aged 35 and over.

Angus Reid poll demonstrating the demographics who are mostly likely to consider the threat of coronavirus "serious" versus "overblown."
Angus Reid poll demonstrating the demographics who are mostly likely to consider the threat of coronavirus "serious" versus "overblown."

Another Canadian poll had similar findings. The National Post reported on an Abacus poll last week that found that 49 per cent of Canadian women said they were “very worried” about the virus, compared to 30 per cent of men.

And this trend exists outside of Canada, too: American men are also less likely than women to heed coronavirus-related health warnings.

Why is this happening?

Sarosi, who’s worked with non-governmental organizations throughout southeast Asia, says she’s seen these kinds of gendered roles play out elsewhere.

“What’s happening right now is very typical for any sort of crisis, in terms of women mobilizing to be first responders, taking on the care work,” she said.

She sees several possible reasons for the gender discrepancy in terms of attitudes about the virus. Part of it has to do with frontline medical workers: Four out of every five health-care workers in Canada are women. Nursing, in particular, is an overwhelmingly female work force, with more than 90 per cent of Canada’s nurses identifying as women.

“It’s really women who are on the front lines of this crisis,” Sarosi said. “They’re in the hospitals, in the health-care centres, providing home care and so on. I think it’s a lot more close to home for them than it is for many of the men.”

An Italian army doctor works at the chemical analysis laboratory of the scientific department at Celio Military Polyclinic Hospital in Rome on Wednesday.
An Italian army doctor works at the chemical analysis laboratory of the scientific department at Celio Military Polyclinic Hospital in Rome on Wednesday.

She sees women’s unpaid labour as a part of the equation, as well. An Oxfam report from earlier this year found that women’s unpaid labour — mainly caring for children or elderly people, but also domestic work like cooking and cleaning — is valued at about $1.8 trillion.

The pandemic has changed that, of course.

“In the best of times, women do twice as much unpaid care in Canada as men do,” Sarosi said. “This is really growing exponentially now, with the closures of schools and daycares, and caring for the elderly and sick.”

There are also societal attitudes that actively discourage men from seeking help or appearing vulnerable. Sarosi links it to research that’s found many men don’t fight against climate change, or even adjust behaviour like eating plant-based diets, recycling, or using reusable bags, because they’re worried that will come across as “feminine.”

“I think the same thing is happening here as well, in terms of women generally being more [socialized] to care about their families, their communities, the broader impact globally,” she said.

“In the best of times, women do twice as much unpaid care in Canada as men do. This is really growing exponentially now.”

- Diana Sarosi

That follows general male attitudes towards health care. A U.S. study found that men were much less likely than women to regularly see doctors, and much more likely to skip suggested appointments. “In general, men who have the most traditional, macho views about masculinity are the least likely to get routine check-ups and necessary medical care,” according to Harvard Men’s Health Watch.

How to get men to care

One of the most effective ways for men to take the risk more seriously is for other men to take a public stance, Sarosi said.

“It’s important that men speak about it as well, that it’s not this ‘women’s issue’ but that men are out there really talking to the severity of this crisis,” she said.

Canadians have seen some of this from our political leaders. Ontario premier Doug Ford and Quebec premier François Legault are both taking the virus very seriously, and both have won over many of their constituents who weren’t previously fans with their clear-headed, no-nonsense approach to virus containment.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, too, has issued a stark warning to Canadians who think they’re “invincible,” which may resonate with some men. “You’re not,” he said at a press conference last week. “Enough is enough. Go home and stay home.”

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