COVID-19 and men: Are we really all in this together?

COVID-19 and men: Are we really all in this together?

Dan Bell, CEO of the Men and Boys Coalition, on why we cannot ignore the gender aspects to the coronavirus crisis

The first great cliché of the Coronavirus crisis has been proven a lie. No, this virus does not affect everyone equally. No, we are not all in this together. Yes, this virus really does discriminate.

We now know you are more likely to get ill or die if you are old, if you are poor, if you are black or minority ethnic. These inequalities have been widely discussed in the media, questions have been asked in parliament, inquiries announced; with one exception: in the UK and across the world, to a devastatingly disproportional extent, this virus is killing men.

Last month, analysis by the ONS revealed that among the general population, men of working age were nearly twice as likely to have died from the virus as women. The disparity in low-paid, low status jobs is shocking. Male security guards are 4.6 times as likely to die as other men and 8.7 times more likely to die than all women.

Even in the NHS with its predominantly female workforce, male staff account for disproportionate tragedy. While 55% of doctors in the UK are male, they comprise 94% of those who have died from Covid-19. Only 11% of British nurses are men but they represent 39% of fatalities among the profession.

Wall of silence

Despite these stark and alarming figures, there has been silence from Government and policy makers on research, public health messaging, or even any sign of particular concern, for the far greater risk and death toll faced by men.

Charities and health campaigns like the Men’s Health Forum have been calling on Government to specifically reach out to men as a vulnerable group. They have been met with a wall of indifference.

And while the WHO, the UN and the Gates Foundation have all rightly made urgent calls for policy action to support the impact of Covid-19 on women, spanning issues ranging from their predominance in caring roles to their vulnerability to domestic and sexual violence and broader socioeconomic gender inequality, there has been no equivalent call to action for men affected by the disease, or indeed the men affected by abusive relationships, homelessness or other gendered social impacts.   

It’s assumed men should sort themselves out, instead of society and Government ensuring more appropriate and effective male health provision.

When the subject of men’s greater vulnerability to Covid-19 is raised at all, it has too often been dismissed as a consequence of men’s own behaviours – in other words, it’s assumed men should sort themselves out, instead of society and Government ensuring more appropriate and effective male health provision.

No attention or concern has yet been paid to how male gender roles and gender conditioning may be driving health-related behaviours. Are gendered pressures to be brave, stoic, selfless and dismissive of risk a part of the explanation for the male death rate? Male-dominated industries like construction have learned many valuable lessons over the decades in how to keep male workers safe and healthy, and yet that type of invaluable expertise is apparently being entirely ignored in this crisis.

Covid-19 is not only an immediate health emergency, it’s also a timebomb for a raft of social and welfare issues that disproportionately affect men.

Charities and service providers who work with men are now dreading a perfect storm that will devastate men’s mental health – loss of jobs, reduced contact with children for separated fathers, increased self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. The global economic crash triggered a global spike in male suicide and many are bracing themselves for what now lies ahead.

None of this is inevitable. There is action we can take now to mitigate the gendered devastation of this disease on men and of course the women and children who share their lives.

The Men and Boys Coalition calls on the government to support the eight-point call-to-action by Global Action on Men’s Health, which includes fast-track publication of sex-disaggregated data on Covid-19 infection and mortality; research to understand the causes of men’s higher mortality and how it can be addressed; research into the wider impact of Covid-19 on the mental and physical health of men and boys as well as on issues concerning their employment, education, personal relationships and family life.

The Coalition also fully endorses their claim “Covid-19 has exposed deep, long-established and widely-overlooked problems in men’s health” and we call for this crisis to mark the beginning of a profound change in how we think about and care for men’s health.

We stand ready to work with health organisations and others at all levels who want to rise to the challenge of creating better health for men and for all, but above all we stand with and for those affected by this cruel disease, whatever their gender or background.

Dan Bell

Dan Bell

Dan Bell is CEO of the Men and Boys Coalition, the umbrella charity for the men's sector in the UK.