Researchers believed that men of all races were more likely to die from COVID-19 than women for much of the pandemic’s first year. But new research published in the Journal of Internal Medicine has turned that belief upside down, revealing that women — particularly Black women — are the most likely to die from a COVID-19 infection. The only group dying at a faster rate? Black men.
Kate Gibson of CBS News has reported that “Black women in the U.S. are dying from the virus at a higher rate than any other group, male or female, except Black men, according to an analysis of COVID-19 mortality patterns by race and gender in Georgia and Michigan.”
“The deaths we see in the pandemic reflect pre-existing structural inequities; after the pandemic is gone, those will still be there,” said Heather Shattuck-Heidorn, the lead author of the study and an assistant professor of gender and women studies at the University of Maine, in an interview with CBS.
“Whatever is going on is probably not linked to the X chromosome or the Y chromosome,” Shattuck-Heidorn added, pointing out that sex-determining genes aren’t behind the heightened death rates but rather things going on within our culture, such as Black women’s increased role in the workforce as essential workers.
“While it’s generally understood that social inequality and racism — not genetics — drive the racial disparities that have had White Americans dying of COVID-19 at lower rates than Black Americans, the differences in gender outcomes have been viewed as biological,” Gibson reported. “If that gender-based premise were true, however, a similar sex disparity should be apparent across different locations — and it’s not.”
For example, in New York City, men are still dying from COVID-19 infections at 1.3 times the rate as women. In neighboring Connecticut, death rates for men and women are virtually equal. According to Gibson, these types of anomalies have led researchers to believe that “the sex-disparity in mortality among COVID patients is largely rooted in social factors.”
In an opinion piece published in the Boston Globe on April 5, Harvard researchers Tamara Rushovich and Sarah Richardson wrote “[many news stories] frame sex disparities in COVID-19 outcomes as a matter of essential biological differences between the sexes. Our findings support a contrary view, that biological factors, at best, play a small role. Rather, social factors influenced by structural gendered racism are key to the patterns of sex disparities revealed by the COVID-19 pandemic. … Without looking at the intersections between gender and race, the blanket claim, that women with COVID-19 fare better than men, makes invisible the high death rate among Black women.”