After many quarrels, Monica * made a drastic decision.
Her husband Eduardo had repeatedly refused to wear a face mask as the Covid-19 pandemic increased in Brazil – the country with the second highest number of coronavirus deaths, behind only the United States.
She therefore decided to leave the family apartment in Niteroi (a town of 480,000 inhabitants near Rio de Janeiro), and to move to her parents’ house with their seven year old son.
“I have asthma and this makes me particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus. But my husband thought I was paranoid, ”she told the BBC.
“His reasoning was that he didn’t need a mask because when he left the house, he didn’t go into confined spaces.
“He didn’t think he was putting our son and myself more at risk. “
More men die from Covid-19 … but more of them refuse to wear masks
The story of Monica and Eduardo exposes a gender gap that was widely observed during the pandemic.
Studies have shown that men are more reluctant than women to wear personal protective equipment and face coverings – a trend also seen in previous outbreaks.
And this despite the fact that Covid-19 has infected more than 13.8 million people and killed more than 590,000 according to the widely used database of Johns Hopkins University. And in the vast majority of countries where data are available, death rates are significantly higher among men.
Scientific advice has shifted to masks, as the coronavirus appears to be suspended in the air – and can spread through tiny particles suspended in the air as well as larger droplets of cough or sneeze. sneezing.
The World Health Organization (WHO), which initially suggested they were not helpful in stopping the spread of the virus, now recommends covering the face in indoor spaces and when social distancing is not. possible.
And in a number of countries, masks are now mandatory in shops and on public transport.
Pride and prejudice
So if masks can help fight coronavirus, why are men less likely to wear them?
One of the most recent analyzes of male behavior was carried out by Valerio Capraro, lecturer in economics at Middlesex University, and the Canadian mathematician Hélène Barcelo, of the Mathematical Science Research Institute, Berkeley.
Academics surveyed nearly 2,500 people in the United States and found that men were not only less likely to wear masks than women. They also considered wearing a mask to be “shameful, uncool and a sign of weakness”.
“This has happened especially in counties where the face mask is not mandatory,” says Dr Capraro.
Participants were asked if they intended to wear one while participating in social activities or meeting people from other households.
Women were almost twice as likely as men to say they intended to “wear a mask outside their home”.
“Men are less inclined to wear a face covering, and one of the main reasons is that they are more likely to believe that they will be relatively unaffected by the disease compared to women,” adds the scientist.
“This is particularly ironic because official statistics show that the coronavirus actually affects men more seriously than women. ”
Other studies have consistently shown that men are also less respectful of hand washing, one of the basic hygiene measures to help prevent the spread of Covid-19 – a recent survey found that 65% of women but only 52% of men say they wash their hands regularly.
Gender trumps politics
In the United States, political affiliations also strongly influenced the behavior of some men and women during the pandemic.
Supporters of President Donald Trump’s Republican Party are less likely than supporters of the Democratic Party to wear masks, according to a number of surveys. That published by the Pew Research Center on June 25 had 76% of Democratic voters declaring to wear a mask “all or most of the time in stores and other businesses” against 53% of Republicans.
But even in this context, sex seems to be a more important factor when it comes to defining behaviors: the Kaiser Family Foundation, an American NGO focused on public health issues, discovered in May that 68% of women supporting Republicans frequently wore a mask outside the house.
Men? Only 49% said they put one on when going out.
Are men too confident?
Christina Gravert, behavioral specialist and assistant professor at the University of Copenhagen, is not shocked by the gender divide in mask wearing.
She cites a large body of academic work showing that men and women seem to approach risk differently.
Dr. Gravert says that a simple observation in the Danish capital gave him a strong impression that women were more attentive.
“Copenhagen’s walking trails have been turned into one-way streets (during the pandemic) so people don’t face each other when running or walking.
“I had the impression that more men than women got it wrong. “
The same divide has also been observed in previous epidemics.
For example, a study on the behavior of commuters in Mexico City during the 2009 swine flu epidemic – which killed nearly 400 people – showed that a higher proportion of women than men wore face masks in the Subway.
Even in Asian countries where wearing a face mask is a long-established and widely observed social norm, the split persists. A study of public attitudes during the 2002-03 Sars epidemic in Hong Kong found that women were much more likely to take precautions including handwashing and masks.
Or are men more careless?
In addition to academic work, real life also seems to provide evidence that men are less careful.
Auto insurance providers have always charged lower premiums to women because men are the cause of most traffic accidents around the world – though there is a caveat: the world matters more male drivers than female.
Another curious example is the infamous Darwin Award, which highlights the most absurd (and preventable) deaths. Data from 1995 to 2014 showed that men made up almost 90% of “winners”.
Even London researcher Valerio Capraro admits he’s been lax about wearing a face mask.
“I started wearing one only a few months ago when I went on a trip to Italy, where the use of face masks is mandatory in a variety of situations,” he says.
“I was very careful and practiced social distancing. It helped me justify myself why I wasn’t wearing a mask. ”
Dr Capraro now believes that making masks mandatory will encourage more men to follow public health advice.
“Studies have shown that the difference between the sexes disappears almost everywhere where wearing a face covering is compulsory. ”
Christine Gravert, however, sees more potential in awareness campaigns targeting the male audience.
“If overconfidence is the problem, then it could help raise awareness of the statistics among men, and show them that they suffer more from Covid than women,” she says.
“If we take seriously the fact that men on average are less altruistic and more selfish, then communication should focus less on protecting others than on protecting oneself,” says Dr Gravert.
A happy ending
But there’s also some evidence that peer pressure can work – as the story of Eduardo and Monica, the couple divided by a face mask, shows.
After reading the riot act to her husband, Monica saw a dramatic change. And a happy ending: Eduardo has been wearing a face mask for some time now.
“I still think my husband believes that a healthy man like him won’t get sick,” she admits.
“But he is quite aware now that his good deeds will protect his family. ”
* Names have been changed at the request of respondents.