According to the latest data from the Public Health Agency of Canada, more women have been diagnosed with COVID-19 than men, and more women have died as a result. As of May 15, 55 per cent of confirmed cases of COVID-19 are women, and 45 per cent are men.
Of the total deaths, 53 per cent are women and 47 per cent are men.
The provinces with the highest number of cases and deaths — Quebec and Ontario — also have starker gaps between the genders, according to daily provincial epidemiologic summaries.
In Ontario, currently around 57 per cent of those infected are women, while close to 42 per cent are men. Similarly, in Quebec, close to 60 per cent of confirmed COVID-19 cases are women and around 54 per cent of deaths are also women.
This kind of data stands out from other countries who track coronavirus cases, as the vast majority have had more men than women die of COVID-19 since the emergence of the virus, according to Global Health 50/50, an organization out of the UCL Centre for Gender and Global Health in London, England.
Why more women are possibly dying
It’s difficult to discern why women are being more affected by COVID-19 in Canada, but there are several factors that could impact how the virus impacts different genders, says Colin Furness, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto who specializes in infection control.
One possible reason could be because there are more female residents in Canada’s long-term care homes, where the brunt of the cases and deaths in Canada are concentrated, Furness said.
Eighty-two per cent of Canada’s COVID-19-related deaths have been in nursing homes, according to the National Institute on Aging.
Data published in 2018 by Statistics Canada found that women were more likely to be widowed than men, and were more likely to be living in a nursing home or seniors’ residence.
Other countries are not seeing their long-term care homes ravaged by COVID-19 to the extent that Canada has. A study by the International Long-Term Care Policy Network published this month found that compared to 14 other countries, Canada had the most COVID-19-related deaths in long-term care.
Along with a higher representation in nursing homes, women are also more likely to work in “caring” professions that involve a lot of interaction with other people, Furness said.
This includes jobs like personal support workers (PSWs), like those who work in long-term care homes, he said. A recent study on PSWs in Canada found that workers are largely women and people of colour and/or immigrants.
A report published in February by the Ontario Health Coalition found that Ontario is facing a shortage of PSWs as many leave the profession due to being overworked, underpaid or injured on the job.
Last month, after a second PSW in Ontario died due to COVID-19, the union representing health care workers across the province blamed their deaths due to a lack of available personal protective equipment (PPE).
A report by Global News in April also found that long-term care homes across the country are struggling to access PPE.
Intersection of race and gender
It’s also important to assess exactly which women are being impacted by COVID-19, said Suzanne Sicchia, an associate professor at the Interdisciplinary Centre for Health and Society at the University of Toronto Scarborough.
If data on race and socioeconomic status is collected, it’s likely to show women of colour are being disproportionately impacted, she said. More women of colour are employed as personal support workers in Canada, and research has found that people of colour often have worse health outcomes.
Canada should also be collecting data when it comes to the care work women do, personally and professionally, she said.
“Paid or unpaid, women’s care work, for the sick and elderly at home, in their extended family, in their communities, is another possible source of elevated risk of infection,” Sicchia said.
Many often think health is shaped by lifestyle choices or genetics, which are important. But it’s crucial to remember there are a multitude of other factors that shape the health of individuals or populations including income, employment, social status and racism, Sicchia said.
While more women in long-term care along with the number of women working as care providers are factors, it’s difficult to make concrete assessments without consistent data being collected by governments, Sicchia said.
“Undoubtedly there are other determinants at play, and this is why more research and the collection of race-based data and data on other intersecting determinants of health is so important.”
Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:
Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.
To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.
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