COVID-19 Kills More Men Than Women
Experts still can’t explain why
Harvard's GenderSCI Lab is unlike most university laboratories. The group’s mandate is to interrogate the scientific study of sex and gender; it brings together historians, anthropologists, social scientists and philosophers. So, when the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis reached the U.S. in March, they didn’t have to halt half-completed experiments or scramble to make arrangements for lab animals. Nevertheless, the change wasn’t easy. “We were all struggling with the circumstances of living under Covid and wondering how we would continue to work together,” said Sarah Richardson, a professor of the history of science at Harvard University and the lab’s director. “We wondered, is all the work that we generally do even important in this moment?”
But sex and gender soon became major issues in the fight against COVID-19. In mid-February, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention analyzed data from 72,314 Covid-19 patients and reported that men in their sample were almost twice as likely to die as women. This initial result pointed researchers and commentators toward smoking as a reason for men’s relatively poor prognosis, since over half of Chinese men smoke while very few Chinese women do. But as the virus spread across the world and continued to kill men in greater numbers, alternative explanations proliferated, and references to intrinsic female biology—estrogen, the X chromosome—became more common. As of today, among the 53 countries that report their case and death data separated by sex, men account for approximately 51 percent of COVID-19 cases but 58 percent of deaths.
In these frequent appeals to biology, Richardson and her team saw a familiar pattern. They contend that physicians, researchers and the media have a tendency to focus on biology while under-emphasizing the social determinants of men’s and women’s health. While factors like chromosomes and hormones—often captured under the label “sex”—do indeed play a role in health, women and men also experience radically different social environments. Gender, a more amorphous concept that captures a person’s social roles and experiences, has profound implications for health: It helps determine how we are treated by our surroundings and how we treat them in return.
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