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Coronavirus has claimed the lives of thousands globally, with repercussions across almost every sector. But often during a pandemic one area is left unexplored: the different effect the virus will have on men and women.

It’s early days in the outbreak, and so far too early to have solid statistics on infection and death. So far, we know men make up a slight majority of cases (51%) and that the overall fatality rate has risen to 3.4% (much higher than previously thought).

While the World Health Organisation doesn’t have a breakdown of deaths by gender, the Chinese Centre for Disease Control has reported there is a huge difference in fatality rate — 1.7% for women and 2.8% for men (though this figure only accounts for cases in China and hasn’t taken developments since early February into account). 

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But in Australia we could expect the gender fatality rate to be skewed in the other direction, Dr Melinda Martin-Khan, health scientist and researcher at the University of Queensland, told Crikey. 

Why? Because of Australia’s large population of elderly women. 

“Men die before women do. Men have more illnesses which lead to death and women have more illnesses which cause disability or frailty but don’t lead to death,” Martin-Khan said.

Older Australian women are also more likely to live in poverty, on the pension and with housing stress.

Life expectancy in Australia is 80.4 for men and 84.6 for women (this number is lower for Indigenous Australians). Reasons for this split include such factors as nutrition and exercise, lifestyle choices, occupational risks and many others.

The older, sicker and frailer a person is, the more likely contracting coronavirus will be fatal. “We can expect similar rates to the flu,” Martin-Khan said. In 2017 women accounted for 59% of Australia’s influenza deaths (744 out of 1255).

Importantly, elderly Indigenous women will be the most affected: “For Aboriginal people, immunity is really low for global viruses,” Martin-Khan said. 

Direct cause-of-death doesn’t explain the whole story of how outbreaks affect women differently.

For example, during the 2013 Ebola outbreak in western Africa, infection rates were fairly similar between men and women but saw a 75% increase in maternal mortality in the first 18 months across Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

School closures meant girls, already lagging in global education, fell further behind, increasing the rate of adolescent pregnancies (further boosting maternal illness and mortality).

Even though children and pregnant women are not at greater risk of severe disease from the coronavirus, pregnant women are still likely to suffer in Australia and around the world, according to Gender Equity Victoria CEO Tanja Kovac.

“There is a risk resources which are usually directed in public hospitals to birthing are redirected to the crisis,” Kovac told Crikey. “We’re no doubt looking at conversations in varying hospitals about reshaping the labour resources to address the pandemic.” 

Women are also at greater risk simply because they’re more likely to be around the infected in hospitals — making trips to give birth, or for checkups for newborns, children and elderly parents (since women are more likely to be carers and take time off work to care for others). 

“We need to be careful we’re doing everything we can to protect women and children presenting for birthing purposes … a strong gender lens is needed to look at the way health services are being provided to protect secondary services,” Kovac said. 

Just as women take more of their work sick days to care for others, they also make up the majority of the global health workforce

“These caring professionals are at the frontline, providing the day-to-day management of disease,” Kovac said.

It’s not just professionals affected: “If people are being asked to care for themselves in their own home, the majority of people doing that caring will be women. 

“We’re looking now at a range of different pieces of labour performed in a home which GDP tells you aren’t valuable. They become even more valuable in a pandemic. People who collect food; do the shopping; ensure the medicines are available for everyone and linen is cleaned and there’s good hygiene across the house and spaces are properly disinfected … this is traditionally women’s housework.” 

In Australia in 2020, women spent a whopping 80.8% more time on unpaid household work each day than men.

Similarly, women make up 82% of single parents, but almost half of the workforce — meaning if they’re off work, there’s no one else bringing home the bacon. 

Finally, after every crisis, domestic violence spikes.

“The risk of violence in the home increases considerably when there is a disaster, natural or unnatural threat,” Kovac said. “We’re talking about potentially prolonged periods of quarantine … People are buying toilet paper because they’re worried they’ll be locked up. There will be gendered tensions, financial challenges and new stresses.” 

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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