Why more women than men have got Covid-19 during lockdown

The proportion of women with confirmed Covid-19 cases increased during the lockdown to around 54%. Keystone / Pablo Gianinazzi

Data reveals that more women than men have been infected with Covid-19 since distancing measures started in Switzerland. What’s behind the phenomenon?

When the coronavirus first started spreading throughout Switzerland, men represented a larger share of confirmed cases. The number of women infected started inching upwards to reach an even gender split by the time the lockdown went into effect on March 16.

Then, as businesses and much of public life shut down over the weeks that followed, more women than men became infected with Covid-19. There were around 13,800 cases among men (46% of the total) and around 16,500 among women (54% of the total) by mid-May, according to Swiss public health statistics.

A few other countries have seen a similar phenomenon. The German-language Tages-Anzeiger newspaper reports that women represent 53% of cases in Italy, 52% in Germany and 57% in both Spain and Sweden.

According to a policy brief released over the weekend by the Swiss National Covid-19 Science Task Force, one reason is that women are more exposed to the virus because they make up the majority of the healthcare workforce and those who care for the elderly. This also means that they are tested more often.

Women are also more frequently found in jobs such as childcare and sales that cannot be done at home and where they come in direct contact with people. Women also represent the lion’s share of teachers, which could leave them at a higher risk of infection as the country's schools reopen. 


The task force notes that women are also more likely to be working in lower-paid jobs, which means they may find it more difficult to demand protective equipment when it isn’t made available. And Helena Trachsel, head of canton Zurich's gender equality unit, noted in the Tages-Anzeiger that the higher number of women in part-time work in Switzerland, the second-highest in Europe, also means that they are more mobile, which could increase exposure.

Catherine Gebhard, a gender medicine specialist at the University of Zurich, told the Tages-Anzeiger that more investigations are underway to understand gender differences in infection rates. At this point, she says that “social differences” appear to play a larger role than “biological ones”.

It is however possible that biology plays a role in how men and women’s immune systems respond to the virus.

Even with higher infection rates, serious illness is more common among men. Women have represented a stable 40-42% of coronavirus-related deaths in Switzerland over the course of the pandemic. Other countries such as China and the US report similar gender differences in death rates.


Other gender dimensions

Infection rates are not the only concern according to the task force. As prenatal care and childbirth services have become a lower priority as resources focused on Covid-19, midwives had more difficulty procuring protective equipment and decreased visits.

The crisis has also been linked with a rise in domestic violence, as confinement and economic uncertainties place more stress on couples. 

The task force notes that women are also disproportionately affected economically by the crisis because they are more often in precarious economic situations, spend more time on unpaid work and represent the majority of single-parent households. This means that “their capacity to absorb shocks is weaker than men".

Homeschooling tasks are more likely to fall on mothers than fathers, which in turn reinforces the pressure on women as they try to maintain their careers, the task force said.

At the same time, the group's research shows that new, more equal and less gendered work-home life arrangements are emerging out of the crisis. This includes fathers taking on more parenting duties during confinement.

As the country looks ahead, the crisis may also lead to more openness to flexible work arrangements and teleworking that could have gender equality benefits, researchers said.

The task force has put together a series of recommendations that take into account how the virus and the economic consequences of the lockdown affect men and women differently. The Federal Commission on Women’s Issues is also publishing a series of articles on gender-related Covid-aspects, starting with the world of work.

 

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