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Women make up the majority of Covid-19 deaths and confirmed cases in Ireland. Why?

“Whether it’s paid or unpaid, it’s women who are predominantly doing care work,” Orla O’Connor of the NWCI said.

Image: Shutterstock/Dusan Petkovic

THERE HAS BEEN a call for the Oireachtas Covid-19 Committee to hold a special session to examine the effect the coronavirus has had on women in Ireland.

It comes after figures indicate that women in Ireland make up a larger proportion of both deaths and confirmed cases when compared with international figures.

At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, it seemed that Covid-19 hit men harder than it did women: one study found that by mid March, males accounted for 64% of deaths in China, 58% in France, 62% in Germany, 59% in Iran, 71% in Italy and 54% in South Korea.

Public health experts have said that this is possibly due to men being more likely to engage in unhealthy activities such as drinking or smoking, or because women seem to have more robust immune systems.

Although there are more women aged over 60 in Ireland, men are statistically slightly more likely to smoke, or have a longterm chronic condition. 

As outlined by Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Ronan Glynn back in April:

It is either biology or behaviour or a mixture of both. In some countries, significantly greater proportions of men smoke. The activity of smoking is often associated with touching your face.

But here in Ireland, the latest figures show that we’re bucking that trend: 57% of confirmed cases are female, and 50.5% of Covid-19 related deaths are also female. The latter figure compares with 42% in Europe

Analysis by the Central Statistics Office (CSO) of weekly trends shows that since early April, more women have been infected than men – and now 57% of all cases are women, despite women making up 51% of the population.

Further breakdown of the gender shows that of the total deaths of 1,518 on 15 May, the median age of female deaths was 85, and the median age of male deaths was 82. The median age of female confirmed Covid-19 cases was 47, compared to the male median age of 49.

Yesterday, the World Health Organization’s Dr David Nabarro appeared before the Oireachtas Covid-19 committee. He was asked by Fianna Fáil health spokesperson Stephen Donnelly why this disparity existed, and replied that he didn’t know.

But he also pointed out that the containment phase of tackling the Covid-19 lockdown may have disproportionately affected women. 

Orla O’Connor of the National Women’s Council of Ireland says that we’re still not sure why the data is skewed so that Irish women make up the majority of cases: “We don’t have the scientific data to tell us why this is the case, but what we would say is that it really highlights certain factors that the Covid-19 crisis has really shown up.”

She said there were three factors that have been highlighted.

“One is the number of older women in nursing homes,” she said. “The other two significant factors are the fact that the majority of our health workers are women. And the third one is that the majority of people who are in caring – caring for older people, caring for ill people – are women as well.”

O’Connor also said:

We see time and time again in terms of surveys or research – women in Ireland still bear the majority responsibility for care in a much more significant way than in other countries.
That has put them at much more risk of the virus.

She said that this includes women working in hospitals and nursing homes, the latter of which would have been hit hard by a late response to protect that vulnerable sector.

“In terms of care work – whether it’s paid or unpaid – we’re talking about predominantly women doing that work,” she said. “It’s the work, predominantly done by women, that has put them at most risk.”

Responding to a question posed by TheJournal.ie at a Department of Health briefing, Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Ronan Glynn made the point that the case fatality rate for women was 6%, which compares to 8% for men.

He said that in nursing homes, 67% of confirmed cases and 57% of deaths in nursing homes were among women.

It’s also important to note that a high proportion of Ireland’s confirmed cases are made up of cases from long-term residential settings (63%); and Ireland has a high standard for what is reported as a ‘confirmed case’.

CSO figures show that women represent 80% of healthcare workers in Ireland. The Caring and Unpaid Work study found that women are more likely to care for sick and elderly relatives in a personal capacity.

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When asked what should be done in response to the Covid-19 gender breakdown, O’Connor says that “as a start”, the Oireachtas Committee on Covid should have a session addressing the impact the Covid-19 crisis has had on women.

“Some of these things are similar globally, but like we’re seeing in those statistics, there is a disproportionate impact on women, and on women in Ireland.

It’s women who have ended up taking up the majority of care responsibilities at home like homeschooling.
We’ve just finished this whole Mental Health Survey, and it’s coming across very clearly that women are bearing the brunt of a lot of the stress and anxiety that the crisis is caused.

She said this should cover issues like an increase in domestic violence, childcare, maternity leave, and other problems that have disproportionately impacted on women. 

The second thing that needs to be done, she says, is “we really need to gender proof the decisions that are being made”.

“Gender proofing means looking at the decisions and looking at the impact on women before they’re made. So we wouldn’t have had the whole mess over the [maternity leave anomaly].”

In a statement to TheJournal.ie, the Oireachtas Covid-19 Committee said that it had not received a proposal from the National Women’s Council.

“However, the impact on women is a matter that was raised today by Committee Members with the World Health Organisation. And it is a matter the Committee will consider further and it looks forward to hearing from the NWCI in that regard.”

An Oireachtas report published in April points out that the WHO and others have stressed the importance of publicly providing a male/female breakdown of confirmed Covid-19 cases, deaths, and tests carried out, in order to monitor this issue:

“This information can help us to understand why more men are dying from Covid-19 and inform targeted, effective policies to prevent and treat Covid-19.

“As it stands currently, Ireland collects and publicly reports separate data for diagnosed infections and deaths but not for testing,” it concludes.

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