FACE MASK MEN

Studies have found that men tend to have lower rates of adhering to the three key public health tenets for avoiding exposure to COVID-19: wearing masks, washing hands frequently and social distancing.

Roughly 10 percent more men than women are dying of COVID-19 around the world, and at least part of the reason may be that men are less likely by nature to take care of their health and more likely to ignore or resist recommendations for protecting themselves against infection.

In the face of a global pandemic, that tendency can have fatal implications, not only for the men themselves, but for everyone around them.

Even those men who have been faithfully wearing masks, socially distancing themselves and following other safety protocols tend to go into a stoic mode of avoidance when it comes to their own health.

Before the pandemic, they already were reluctant to pick up the phone and call the doctor about a personal health concern. With the pandemic once again reaching full tilt, many men are even less likely to go to a doctor, schedule a screening or take other steps to stay healthy, physically and mentally.

The fears men are experiencing — and too often masking — aren’t just about getting sick from the virus itself. While they may not always admit it, they also feel stalked by the fear and the reality of job loss, reduced hours, lower income, fewer benefits and other economic anxieties that are running rampant during this epidemic, particularly among minorities and those at the lower end of the wage spectrum.

The gender gap in COVID-related deaths is not huge, but still significant. By recent, still-evolving counts in the U.S., nearly 60 percent of deaths caused by COVID-19 have been men. It’s not exactly clear why. It’s possible that biological differences in the immune response for men versus women may be a factor, but those tracking the virus believe gender-based social and behavioral differences may weigh more heavily in the disparity.

Whether it’s a gender trait or the result of generations of social conditioning, the male of the species has long had a tendency to avoid seeking care for their everyday health issues. Men are 100 percent less likely than women, for example, to visit the doctor for annual examinations and take advantage of preventive services such as colonoscopy screenings.

Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic earlier this year, polling studies have found that men are more likely to downplay the severity of the viral risk. They also tend to have lower rates of adhering to the three key public health tenets for avoiding exposure: wearing masks, washing hands frequently and social distancing.

Fewer men than women are avoiding large public gatherings and close physical contact with others. They also have higher rates of other behaviors linked with COVID-19 infection and mortality, including smoking and alcohol consumption.

As some researchers have observed, many men have been socialized to mask their fears, and ironically, those often are the same men who choose not to wear masks and follow other safety measures during this pandemic.

Cleary, public education efforts around COVID-19 need to engage men differently, not just by pointing out their own risks, but on the risk they pose to others — their families, friends, neighborhoods and communities.

They need to be motivated to choose healthier behaviors, not out of personal shame or pressure, but out of basic respect for others. The health education of men’s partners and their families about men’s health risks is also important, as those are the people who most strongly influence those decisions.

Men don’t need to feel so alone and helpless in the face of COVID-19. Many online and in-person support services are available through health, church and social organizations.

Unmasking the too-often-unspoken fears about the coronavirus can help emotionally vaccinate men against the beyond-physical effects of COVID-19.

Dr. Mark Pettus is director of population health and community care at Berkshire Health Systems.