In the weeks and months since coronavirus has taken hold, scientists have learned a lot about the pathogen and how it spreads. We know it can be transmitted by air. We know somewhere around 25 percent of carriers are asymptomatic. We know that its receptors are specialized to lung tissue, but that its fatty outer shell is no match for your fancy lavender hand soap. We even know that a gene called “Sonic Hedgehog” can cause it to interfere with your senses of taste and smell. Also, it probably comes out in your poop.
But, there’s one thing scientists are still scratching their heads over: why the virus appears to have an inordinate preference for sickening and killing men.
In every country that’s collected data on coronavirus deaths by gender, men have been more likely to both test positive for COVID-19 and die from it. In China, an analysis of all coronavirus cases filed from December 2019 to February 2020 found that men accounted for roughly 60 percent of those who were infected and became sick, and another report of 44,600 cases from China’s Center for Disease Control revealed that men’s COVID-19 death rate was 65 percent higher than women’s around the same period. Of the cases included in the report, 2.8 percent of men lost their lives as compared to 1.7 percent of women.
In South Korea, coronavirus-infected men were 89 percent more likely to die from COVID-19 than women. In Italy, roughly 70 percent of COVID-19 deaths were men, and the ones who were hospitalized for severe symptoms were 75 percent more likely to pass away.
Stateside, no one knows what toll coronavirus has been taking on American men. As of today, the CDC hasn’t released any information regarding the gendered breakdown of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. (though according to CNN, there’s no reason to think that the trend would look any different than it does abroad). Results may vary by country, but CNN calculates that worldwide, men appear to be at least twice as likely to die from coronavirus.
It’s too early in the game for researchers to know exactly why this is, but that hasn’t stopped them from guessing. There’s the smoking theory: In almost every country around the world, far more men smoke cigarettes than women, which might leave their lungs weakened and more susceptible to respiratory disease. Then there’s the evolutionary argument: Since women, as CNN puts it, “spend part of their lives with a foreign body inside,” they might have naturally stronger immune systems as compared to men. There’s even a hormonal hypothesis: As recent studies have confirmed, estrogen — the so-called “female hormone” — tends to protect the immune system against certain pathogens, including those from the coronavirus family. Testosterone, on the other hand, appears to be immunosuppressive, especially when levels of it are high.
But while none of these theories have been studied extensively enough to make definitive conclusions about what makes men more vulnerable to the virus, certain species of internet dwellers have latched on to its gendered effects to come to their own bizarre verdicts about what it all means. While doctors and nurses fight coronavirus on the front lines of overflowing hospitals, trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs), men’s rights activists (MRAs) and other gender traditionalists are fighting their own COVID-19 gender wars, taking to Reddit where they use it as ammo for their biased agendas that pit man against woman.
In the blue corner, TERFs and second-wave feminists argue that coronavirus’ disproportionate infection and kill rate for men is evidence of a gender binary that excludes trans and gender non-conforming people. “Coronavirus does not care if men wear make-up or a dress, because their biology is male,” writes one user on the feminist subreddit r/GenderCritical. “Their chromosomes are XY. Women are XX. No threats of violence or hatred will change biology. Biology will always matter more than any gender identity.”
Another user, responding to a VICE article about gender-affirming surgeries that have been postponed due to coronavirus, writes that it makes sense that trans women would be upset about this because “they are men” and “men get really pissy and whine and cry if they aren’t being worshipped.”
In other subreddits, users appear to fantasize about the ways in which the pandemic might lead to transphobia. “I’ve always thought to myself that if the world ever faced a truly serious global threat (pandemic illness sure meets that criteria, unfortunately), then we’d see a great reduction in all of the ‘trans’ stuff that has dominated the media/politics etc.,” writes another GenderCritical user. “People will have other things to worry about. No one will have time to agonize over pronouns, no one is going to pay attention to someone throwing a Twitter tantrum when many are ill and dying.”
Another responder agrees, forecasting a world where the narratives about “brave and stunning” trans people will start to be seen for the “narcissistic grandstanding that it is.”
For some TERFs and gender essentialists, predictions like these aren’t cause for concern — they’re a beacon of hope; one they believe conveniently confirms their binary worldview. “The coronavirus pandemic and its effect on the way in which we all communicate with each other etc. has actually given me hope that many more people will have the opportunity to think through their blind acceptance of a lot of postmodern nonsense, particularly the belief in gender identity ideology,” writes one redditor, who labels herself as an “fan of biological reality.”
Coronavirus, to these people, is an unrepentant TERF.
But to those who are informed about trans bodies and health, it’s anything but. According to Joshua Safer, director of the Center for Transgender Surgery and Medicine, it’s unlikely to be a person’s chromosomal makeup that matters when it comes to coronavirus resistance; it’s their “endocrine gender,” or the hormonal composition of their body at a given time, that makes the difference.
Put another way, if a trans woman — whose chromosomes are XY — is taking estrogen, the virus won’t clock her for being assigned male at birth, it’ll respond to hormones she’s taking to be female. Assuming estrogen is even the limiting factor — scientists still don’t know for sure that it is and haven’t studied their effects in trans coronavirus patients — Safer says both cis and trans women should have similar “immune-related experiences.” The same would go for cis and trans men — lower estrogen and higher testosterone could, theoretically, carry a greater degree of risk for a negative COVID-19 outcome. If proven to be true, that would appear to be more trans-affirming than not.
It’s not just trans people in the crosshairs of this subset of feminist Reddit, though. Cis men have also become a target, with users speculating that male death rates are higher not just for biological reasons, but because of behavioral causes that appear to confirm and uphold stereotypes surrounding masculinity’s more traditional and toxic expressions.
One redditor sums it up nicely. “Males behave differently to females,” they write. “Generally speaking, males have poorer personal hygiene, less awareness of how their actions affect others, a lower sense of social responsibility, a greater inclination to think that rules don’t apply to them personally and more delusions of physical invincibility.”
And while masculinity experts like Ronald Levant, a University of Akron psychologist, author, masculinity researcher and former president of the American Psychological Association, agree that most of those points are actually true — traditional masculinity can actually promote certain diseases and men aren’t exactly experts when it comes to washing their hands — the way they’re being discussed in Reddit’s ever-seething comment sections suggests people aren’t using them as objective talking points with scientific value, but as twisted evidence that it’s men, not coronavirus, who are the real problem.
“I’m high risk and want to stay home,” writes one user. “My husband says I’m not high risk with my slight asthma and keeps going out to get food and other things even though I stocked us up for months. I hate him right now.”
“Men are a health hazard,” agrees another. A third refers to males as the “XY virus” and questions why we care so much about coronavirus when women are murdered by men everyday. The subtext of their post is clear: People will shut down the public sector and suspend life as we know it when men are dying, but when women are being picked off, no one cares (ironically, MRAs, who we’ll get to shortly, feel the exact opposite — in their eyes, only “female” issues get attention while men are unilaterally blamed for them).
At times, some users even suggest that men’s higher death rates from COVID-19 constitute a convenient, rationalizable excuse to interfere in women’s health. As many redditors and a handful of outlets like BuzzFeed have pointed out, the government’s recent mobilization of the anti-malaria chloroquine to treat COVID-19 has left millions of patients with autoimmune disease facing medication shortages. Lupus patients are at a particularly high risk, and 90 percent of them are women (though to be fair, rheumatoid arthritis patients are also being affected by chloroquine shortages and the disease is equally prevalent among genders).
Meanwhile, in the red corner, some MRAs are weaponizing coronavirus for their own agendas by using it to highlight the many inequities they say men face. A favorite are the “sacrifices” men make as “breadwinners” who are expected to leave the house and travel for work on a regular basis, thereby exposing themselves to a greater number of people on public transport and in the workplace who could infect them with the virus. MRAs also like to harp on the fact that stereotypically male jobs tend to be considered more “essential,” meaning that while women have the “privilege” of staying home, they still have to report for duty as firemen, construction workers, garbagemen, repairmen and factory workers, all of which employ more men than women. (Meanwhile, jobs like teachers, child-care specialists and caregivers for the elderly, which are traditionally “female” jobs, have largely been suspended in the name of social distancing.)
The higher rate of male homelessness is another MRA talking point at the coronavirus table. Roughly sixty percent of the homeless population is male, which means there’s a larger proportion of men for whom it’s difficult for to shelter in place, avoid public areas, wash their hands and get the medical attention they need.
Finally, there’s the perennial calling card of so many MRAs: The fact that when it comes to survival, it’s “women and children first.” This surprisingly arcane naval code has been used by MRAs like Karen Straughan to illustrate the so-called myth of male privilege, but under coronavirus, it’s taken on an entirely new meaning for the men’s rights community as they debate whether or not it might dictate who gets care and who does not in a hospital triage situation, though no state has a triage plan that requires medical professionals to prioritize people by gender.
While MRAs spend a good deal of time connecting men’s behaviors and the expectations around them to higher rates of COVID deaths, some also lament the fact that they’re being blamed for these behaviors, and by proxy, their own deaths. One user takes issue with CNN’s suggestion that men’s lifestyle choices are to blame, complaining that their article is just another example of how bad things are always men’s fault.
And though most MRAs insist they’re anti-feminist — not anti-woman — there’s a fair amount of mockery regarding studies and news stories that suggest it might be women who are the victims in the coronavirus equation, not them. In a r/MensRights thread discussing a 7 News article called “Coronavirus Australia: Why Women Will Feel the Impact More Than Men,” users roast the idea that women would suffer more than them, the people who are actually dying.
“Women have always been the primary victims of war… erm… pandemics,” one MRA writes. Another accuses medical journals like the Lancet, the New England Journal of Medicine and the American Journal of Psychiatry — all of which have released studies confirming the disproportionate impact of coronavirus on women — as being “plagued by feminist propaganda.”
“LOL,” says a third. “Corona kills more men than women, so women are more likely to feel the financial impact. Bitch.”
Of course, it’s not all second-wave feminists, TERFs or MRAs who are waging these gender-based micro wars, and coronavirus didn’t invent any of their feelings or beliefs. Rather, it merely gave them an excuse to broadcast their opinions over the loudspeaker of the internet, something they’d probably still be doing, virus or not.
But at a time when things feel as fractured and dystopian as they do now, it’s safe to say that using a microbe to further phobic gender agendas is, at best, a strange reaction to crisis. At worst, it’s a knife in an already-festering wound, one that’s unlikely to heal in online spaces where continued derision is the name of the game, even when a common, microscopic enemy has leveled every single person, regardless of age, race, income or gender, on the exact same playing field.