This article by Stephen Burrell and Sandy Ruxton explores why it’s so important to take into account the impacts of gender norms in responding to COVID-19.
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.
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.
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