Long COVID is Disproportionately Affecting Women
As scientists are learning more about the long-term effects of Covid, and what exactly the disease looks like, one data point is emerging — women are suffering more from long COVID than men.
Researchers from the Johnson & Johnson Office of the Chief Medical Officer reported these findings in Current Medical Research and Opinion, a peer-reviewed journal. They found that women were 22% more likely to develop long Covid with symptoms presenting a “distinct clinical pattern” between the two genders. Women were more likely to suffer from neurological, skin, gastrointestinal and rheumatic side effects with men experiencing endocrinological disorders such as diabetes and kidney disease.
The report also noted that other factors may play a role and should be explored in greater depth, including professions like nursing or teaching creating a greater exposure of risk by gender, and potential gender-based differences in access to care.
Gender Inequality in Healthcare
These trends within infectious diseases are nothing new. Women are known to be up to four times more likely to get myalgic encephalomyelitis, or chronic fatigue syndrome while other studies have shown that patients with chronic Lyme disease are significantly more likely to be female.
“In general, there’s not as much research money and attention on conditions that primarily affect women,” Julie Nusbaum, an assistant professor at NYU Long Island School of Medicine told The Guardian. “That’s just a general disparity in medical research. I think certain biases persist that when women present with a lot of body aches or pains, there’s more often an emotional or personality component to it than medical origin.”
And these biases have only worsened as Covid has persisted. Jennifer Lee-Cormier, a mother and Covid long hauler since July of 2022 said she began to experience a bevy of Covid symptoms that would lead her to become bed-bound some days, and fight for her doctors to just provide her with a diagnosis.
“They apparently are swayed not to do so,” she said “Or so I’ve heard. The doctor that brought this to my attention is my dentist. She sees patients with these symptoms more often these days and suggested I push my general practitioner to do more to help me. There are days I no longer want to live like this. I had a life.”
While the effects of the Covid-19 crisis highlight the uneven progress toward gender equality, Dr. Noah Greenspan, Director of the Pulmonary Wellness & Rehabilitation Complex in New York City says that this study should be taken with a grain of salt as there is so much variability in how it is presented from person to person.
“One thing we have seen over and over again is that Covid is a master of finding peoples’ weak spots and then exploiting them,” he said. “If your heart is your weak link, you will have more cardiovascular risk, if your lungs are your weak link, you will have more shortness of breath. Therefore, when people are already impacted by an immune system dysfunction, it stands to reason that Covid can kick that dysfunction into high gear.”
Dr. Greenspan adds that the overwhelming majority of long Covid patients that he has seen have been young women, but due to the newness of the virus, it is hard to pinpoint just one reason why someone gets long Covid and someone else does not.
The Economic Fallout
The COVID-19 pandemic has also had a regressive effect on gender equality with women taking a major hit compared to their male counterparts in the workplace. McKinsey & Company, a consulting firm that studies gender inequalities found that womens’ jobs were 1.8 times more vulnerable to the pandemic than men’s jobs, with women making up 39 percent of global employment, but accounting for 54 percent of overall job losses.
One reason for this greater effect on women is that the virus is significantly increasing the burden of unpaid care, which is disproportionately carried by women, according to the report. “This, among other factors, means that women’s employment is dropping faster than average, even accounting for the fact that women and men work in different sectors.”
And women on average tend to work in fields that increase their risk of exposure. Nursing and teaching are two of the top sectors for women, with both jobs requiring daily face-to-face interactions with a multitude of people, and limited work from home options. Women also saw a disproportionate increase in the time they spend with family, with the average mother in the United States saying they increased their home duties by 1.5 to 2 hours a day during the pandemic.
Sara Gregory, a licensed social worker said that these findings align with what she is seeing, noting women’s roles in the workplace and at home can certainly worsen any long-Covid symptoms as women tend to take on the majority of household duties even if they do work a full-time job. And that has only worsened for minority groups.
“Women, specifically minority women, have always had an uphill battle when it comes to the job market,” Gregory said. “We see this with white women being paid 80 cents to every dollar a man earns, and that number drops even more with minorities. This pandemic only shined a brighter light on this disparity.”
And as the pandemic continues on, many hope that the answers gleaned from research will provide more insight into treating long Covid and helping people get back to a normal life.
“I was a very happy and social woman,” said Lee-Cormier. “I love people. I am now feeling insecure and unsure of myself. I miss being me.”
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