I have been paying scant attention to the statistics on Covid-19. For one thing, it seems that everyone else is obsessing over them. But more importantly, it’s a couple of years premature yet. I suspect that lockdown will ultimately prove responsible for increasing the number of deaths, by inhibiting herd immunity and as a result of its economic impact – but time will tell. For now, and because I know readers will be disappointed if I give you no stats at all, here’s my take on the UK position regarding excess male mortality,
Figure 1: Based on data from ONS Deaths Registered Weekly in England & Wales, Provisional: week ending 15 May 2020
Do please note that you cannot deduce the effect of sex on mortality by taking the ratio of the total deaths. The dominant effect of age means that most people (60%) are dying of Covid-19 in an age range (>79) such that most men are already dead of other causes, and hence women outnumber men substantially in that population. When the final stats for 2020 are in, I’m sure lots of people will be doing multivariate regressions to isolate the different effects. For now the above graph suggests the gender effect is about a factor of 2.
One thing was predictable: when times are hard, people double-down on their prejudices. Inevitably the virus merely presents another opportunity for a spot of man-bashing. One of the more disgusting tendencies of feminists is using their access to media outlets, newspaper columns (and even Parliament) to dis their own husbands. The Prime Minister’s beloved sister, Rachael, did just that recently. Apparently men are enjoying being at home and don’t much want to get back to work. Women, on the other hand – at least those who agree with Rachael Johnson – want their men to bugger off back to work asap. What does that tell us about how much the two sexes enjoy their usual lifestyles? With all the tact and self-awareness one usually associates with feminists, Johnson concluded her piece with “Women of Britain say GO!”. Very revealing. Riff on that one, readers.
The ever-lovely Janet Street-Porter has usefully summed up the thrust of the narrative on Covid-and-gender claiming that it’s women who bear the brunt of the misery whilst being ignored. (We know that women’s voices are silenced because they tell us so daily on a hundred mainstream news and media outlets). Here’s what Street-Porter wrote,
“The vast majority (60%) of coronavirus victims are male – probably because men are more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, heart disease and chronic lung conditions.
To be blunt, more men than women have chosen risky behaviour – booze, fags and drugs, all of which makes them vulnerable.
Plus, there’s plenty of evidence that men aren’t so bothered about hand washing and general cleanliness and up to 50% of young males are now flouting social distancing and meeting their mates. In this crisis, women have toed the line, done everything we’ve been asked – and yet we’ve been treated appallingly.
This crisis continues to be navigated by men and on current evidence, they haven’t a clue. Our macho Prime Minister continues to use the language of war to ‘fight’ this disease, when what we need is emotional intelligence – empathy, soothing words to build community support through exhausting and trying times.”
Did you spot all the empirical sources which underpin those claims? No?
The “more men die, women suffer most” narrative is everywhere. Actually, it can be worse than that: the first part of that statement is often omitted entirely and we just get “women suffer most”. This is the variant most common in the corridors of power. I refer you to GlassBlindSpot’s summary of two hours of Women and Equalities Committee meeting which included just 51 seconds on men. (Incidentally, given that the two fairly clear correlates with mortality to emerge so far are (i) men, and, (ii) ethnic minorities, the fact that 9 of the 11 members of the WEC are white women rather raises the question: why do the WEC think they are the appropriate body to discuss the impact of C-19? This is rhetorical – the purpose of the WEC is to spin the issue into a woman’s issue).
Another example of an official body which ignores the “more men die” part of the story is the EHRC Wales in their recent Parliamentary briefing paper. Their depiction of the unequal impact of Covid-19 is that it applies to, “older and disabled people, some ethnic minorities, some women and people living in socio-economic disadvantage”. Obviously there’s lots in their paper about VAWG, and space to give Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities their obligatory mention – but men? No. Nada.
Here’s another example of the genre “women most affected” coming from people in positions of authority. This one is Debora Price, Professor of Social Gerontology, University of Manchester and President of the British Gerontology Society. She speaks in this video, at 40:00 minutes, or you can see her slides here. It’s worth listening to the video (or a glance at the slides). Pay gap and other financial disadvantages figure large. One of my favourites is the claim that older women are particularly impacted, and care home deaths “are a gendered issue”. Well, bloody obviously – anyone who’s visited a care home knows that they are overwhelmingly dominated by women. Those cunning men manage to wangle their way out of being disadvantaged by Covid-19 by sneakily being already dead. Male privilege again, see.
But the part of Price’s talk I’d like to draw to your attention is,
“Covid-19 seems to be making men sicker and leading to greater male mortality at all ages. Focus so far in the public domain has been very much on men – Including some discussion of exaggerated masculine behaviours in the face of catastrophic threats, e.g., less hand washing, less social distancing (war metaphors = a real man can fight and defeat the virus).”
See how “more men die” is immediately followed by “it’s men’s own fault”. It always is. Male suicide, male failure in education, male victims of domestic abuse, men’s mental illnesses, men’s health disadvantages, men’s alienation from their own children…they are all men’s own fault. (Unlike women’s disadvantages, of course, which only a hateful sexist bigot would suggest was their own fault).
The psychology of this came home to me forcibly when street-campaigning against male genital mutilation. Feminist types are wont to react to you, not merely by disagreeing, but with passionate anger. I was quite baffled. Whilst I can understand some people may have a different opinion, where does that anger come from? I could understand anger if I were campaigning in favour of cutting body parts of babies – but why should anyone be so cross about campaigning against it? The answer, I believe, is that such people – feminists – cannot bear the spotlight of concern being turned on males – even male babies. The spotlight of concern must always be upon females. It’s more than just the empathy gap; women must be granted the monopoly of concern, not merely most of it.
But I want to focus on the hand washing thing.
As soon as hand washing became the cause du jour I knew where this would go. Janet Street-Porter has informed us that “men aren’t so bothered about hand washing and general cleanliness” and Debora Price confidently asserts that there is “less hand washing” by men because of their “exaggerated masculine behaviours”. Sources, at all? The “men are filthy beasts” narrative is just another part of “it’s men’s own fault”. It’s the only reaction to male disadvantages that is possible within feminist psychology.
Dr Sara Kayat, a UK GP, shared here some of her theories as to why Corvid-19 appears deadlier for men. Top of her list is hand-washing habits. She writes,
“The World Health Organisation has continually advised to frequently wash your hands with soap as the best and most cost-effective method to control the spread of Covid-19. However, studies suggest that men tend to wash their hands with soap less often than women. While a recent study concluded that on average, most countries’ hand-washing habits increased, there was still a noted difference as 57% of women were more likely to adopt increased hand-washing and hand-sanitising behaviour, compared to just 51% of men.”
Not all that much difference, I note.
Here’s another from the USAPP (American Politics and Policy) whose central mission is, they tell us, “to increase the public understanding of social science”. In a piece titled, “How men’s misplaced sense of masculinity in the face of Covid-19 may be killing them” we read,
“The evidence and messaging are clear – one of the most important ways that people can protect themselves and others from the spread of Covid-19 is to frequently wash their hands. And yet, according to survey data, men are still washing their hands less often than women. Using survey data, Dan Cassino finds that men who feel that they have the same chance of dying from Covid-19 as women are less likely to wash their hands, potentially because they are doubling down on their masculine identities in the face of a threat that they can’t control.”
“potentially because”, eh? So, that bit was just made up, then. They continue,
“In survey after survey, we see that American men just aren’t washing their hands at the same rates as American women. At a moment when health experts are begging Americans to wash their hands frequently in order to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, why are American men lagging? In recent data – collected between March 10th and 16th by USC’s Understanding America Survey – 91 percent of women say that they’re washing their hands more frequently because of the Covid-19 pandemic, compared with only 85 percent of men.”
(The same source goes on to state: “Democrats are more likely to report washing their hands frequently than Republicans” – absolutely no bias there, I’m sure).
Again, the difference is not that marked. But anything will do to motivate man-bashing. And all these sources depend upon the accuracy of self-reporting. Could there be a gender effect in that accuracy? Might one sex be more keen than the other to appear to be a clean person? Wash my mouth out for even suggesting it!
But even if the identified 6% difference between the sexes in hand washing is correct, it hardly contributes much to a roughly 100% greater male death rate. And, of course, it’s not men’s infection rate which is greater – it’s their mortality. This obvious point is conveniently ignored by all those commentators desperate to neutralise male disadvantage and turn it into “women most affected” as quickly as possible.
The reason why I alighted on the hand-washing topic is that I had a distant memory of reading a paper on bacteria assays carried out on hand swabs, disaggregated by sex – and a finding that ran counter to the “filthy men” narrative. I’ll get to that shortly. But the reason why, many years ago now, I had an interest in the topic bears a short digression.
I used to work in a large office. The management were very safety conscious and kept meticulous records of accidents and near-misses. Like virtually everywhere else, the overwhelming majority of accidents were due to slips, trips and falls – especially on staircases. The company instituted a policy of making holding the handrail on stairs obligatory. One woman complained on the grounds that at the bottom of the staircase was the gents’ toilet. She did not elaborate, but the implication was clear. She did not want to touch a handrail which some filthy man emerging from the toilet had touched before her. The women’s toilet was in the same place, by the way, but obviously no one made an objection on those grounds (because that would be the most hateful misogyny – yes, it would).
So, that’s when I initially researched the facts on bacteria-on-hands-by-sex. (Incidentally, urine is virtually sterile – but I find no one is ever very impressed by that observation). I empasise that the sources below refer to bacteria, not viruses. How indicative they may be for viruses I leave to your judgment.
Consider firstly, “The influence of sex, handedness, and washing on the diversity of hand surface bacteria” by Noah Fierer et al (PNAS 2008). Extracts as follows,
“The diversity of skin-associated bacterial communities was surprisingly high; a typical hand surface harbored >150 unique species-level bacterial phylotypes, and we identified a total of 4,742 unique phylotypes across all of the hands examined.” (27 men, 24 women).
“Men and women harbor significantly different bacterial communities on their hand surfaces…. Interestingly, the palms of women were also found to harbor significantly greater bacterial diversity than those of men, whether diversity was assessed by examining the overall phylogenetic structure on each hand (Fig. 2A) or the average number of phylotypes per hand (Fig. 2B).
We do not know what drives these differences in overall diversity, but differences in skin pH may be influential. Men generally have more acidic skin than women and work from other microbial habitats has shown that microbial diversity is often lower in more acidic environments. Other explanations for why men and women appear to harbor distinct hand bacterial communities may include differences in sweat or sebum production, frequency of moisturizer or cosmetics application, skin thickness, or hormone production.”
Personally I find it entirely unsurprising that women’s hands tend to have a greater range of bacteria. Women’s hands tend to be warmer and more moist than men’s hands, and these are the conditions which promote bacterial growth. It has little to do with hygiene.
Figure 2: From Fierer et al (PNAS 2008)
The 2010 paper, “Dirty hands: bacteria of faecal origin on commuters’ hands” by Judah et al took hand swabs from members of the public using public transport (buses and trains), N = 404. Data was gathered at five major cities and concentrated upon bacteria of faecal origin. Bus users were more contaminated than train users. Data from three cities (London, Cardiff, Birmingham) indicated that a greater percentage of women than men had contaminated hands. Data from two cities (Liverpool, Newcastle) indicated that a greater percentage of men than women had contaminated hands. Overall there was no significant difference, see Table 1.
Table 1. Prevalence of faecal organisms by city and gender, from Judah et al, 2010. Percentages with contaminated hands.
Covid-19 being worldwide, this one may also be relevant: “Bacterial and Parasitic Assessment from Fingernails in Debre Markos, Northwest Ethiopia”, by Abeba Mengis et al (2018). This study was conducted to determine the prevalence of bacteria and intestinal parasites among food handlers in Ethiopia. Table 4 of the paper indicates that 27% of men and 31% of women were found to test positive.
- Covid-19 is yet another opportunity for the man-bashers to indulge their prejudice.
- Claiming that men’s greater mortality may be related to their less frequent hand washing is illogical as the gender effect of Covid-19 is on mortality, not infection.
- In any case, the extent of the sex difference in hand washing (6%) is slight compared with the substantial difference in mortality (100%).
- Men do not appear to have higher levels of hand-borne pathogens than women, at least as judged from bacterial assays.
- In short, the narrative is – as usual – bollocks.