Covid and mask-ulinity

The impact of capitalism on women has been discussed in these pages previously, as has the increased risks that women face, both on a personal and a social level, during times of crisis.

Women face increased risk of violence from intimate partners during large sports events, are disproportionately affected by negative economic circumstances, such as recession, the dangers of harassment in service industries, and infection risks through health work during the covid pandemic.

It must be acknowledged that these effects do not happen in isolation—they are the direct result of a number of overlapping and intersecting spheres—but the root is always patriarchal capitalism. We must also recognise that often men are the mode through which these effects are delivered.

The point of this article is not to place all blame for gender-based inequality at the feet of all men, nor to suggest that all women are victims, nor that men are solely responsible for all evils in the world: the aim is to investigate the way in which masculinity is expressed by men under capitalism, and the effects that the accepted and normalised forms of this gender expression and behaviour have on the world at large.

Working-class men are exploited by capitalism: they are damaged by patriarchal norms, are at higher risk of suicide, homelessness, and drug-dependence; but they also repeat the same damage and exploitation on women of the class, be they actively engaged in violent, sexist or misogynistic behaviour or not.

While in the case of violence by intimate partners the link with men’s behaviour is very clear, it is perhaps not as clear in others. For example, the Road Safety Authority reports that most women killed in road crashes die at the hands of a male driver, and that men are the drivers in 80 per cent of fatal road crashes. A high proportion of these crashes result from drink driving but also from aggressive and over-confident driving. In more than half of driver deaths the driver was not wearing a seat belt.

This is the result of gendered social norms: men being reckless, and women paying the price. There is no biological imperative for men to drive fast, only a desire born from social expectation and acceptance of the behaviour.

Covid has shown that the social understanding “to ‘be’ or act like a man is to show a lack of concern for care of the self” still rings true.¹ Outside crisis periods, this lack of care can be displayed in several ways, such as delays in dealing with routine health issues, engaging in risky behaviour, dismissal of their own emotional needs, and even mocking educational attainment as feminine and therefore lesser. With regard to covid, as shown by Mahalik,² stereotypes of masculine behaviour also encapsulate a distinct lack of care or concern for others, or at the very least a blindness to the fact that their behaviour affects others, who are just as important as themselves.

Men are less likely to engage in correct, effective or regular mask-wearing, less likely to regularly wash their hands, less likely to use social distancing, and more likely to see others wearing masks as weak, and to voice these opinions. This creates a self-perpetuating system where men requiring validation from other men fall to peer pressure and engage in behaviour that places others at risk.

With the high level of contagion associated with the omicron variant of covid-19, one must ask whether displays of “toxic masculinity” now also carry a biological threat. Not wearing a mask might be contagious, and while it isn’t sexist in itself its impact certainly is.

More women have been diagnosed than men since the beginning of the pandemic, even though women have higher vaccine uptake rates than men in all age groups other than 65-plus, where the rates are equal. This is because engaging in care of the ill, be it in a professional or a personal setting, places those doing the caring at an extremely high risk of contracting the disease themselves.

The majority of care work in both spheres is carried out by women, placing them and the others they care for at greater risk. According to HSE figures, the proportion of women infected is disproportionately high (78 per cent) among health workers when compared with non-health workers (50 per cent). This is most probably because of many health specialities, such as nursing, being dominated by women. Health work in this definition also includes those carrying out housekeeping and other non-medical tasks in hospital, clinics, and patient-care settings. These staff members are also disproportionately women.

CSO figures show that more men than women have been confirmed dead from covid-19 (the inverse of the percentage of confirmed cases by gender: 47 against 53 per cent). More men are admitted to hospital with severe covid than women. Men, when they become ill with covid, are more ill than women, and then rely predominantly on women to care for them.

Some research shows that the difference in death rates is a result of biological differences in hormone levels, with higher levels of testosterone being a risk factor,³ thus making a lie of cis-men’s defensive posturing about how they are unlikely to get “a bad dose,” or are “probably immune anyway.” With the finding that men are less likely to engage in preventive measures, this reveals a failure to recognise the responsibility they have to others in keeping themselves safe and the shared social responsibility not to infect others.

It is a quiet callousness or lack of empathy that allows a person to place their own immediate comfort and convenience—the inconvenience of a mask versus possibly spreading a preventable illness to another—above the health and safety of others. This is individualistic in the extreme. The form of masculinity celebrated under capitalism promotes this individualism, and the toxic results should be no surprise.

While many expressions of femininity under capitalism are also very individualistic, the concept of care for others is also interwoven into this understanding, making femininity often more toxic to the individual than to society at large.

The challenge of building a new and different world is one we all have to take personal responsibility for, in all aspects of our lives. The destruction of capitalism necessitates the disruption of all its aspects, and this means challenging what can appear to be benign or inconsequential social norms, often disguised as individualised desires. To challenge gender disparities and allow for unified class struggle it is imperative that we honestly examine the subjects of gender and gender expression under capitalism. This may be uncomfortable and challenging work, but it is deeply necessary.

It is not possible to have clean hands under capitalism, but it is hardly too much to ask that we do not unnecessarily dirty them.

■ Figures and percentages are taken from reports by the Health Service Executive, Central Statistics Office, and Road Safety Authority, accessible through their web sites.

References (freely accessible papers)

  1. Will H. Courtenay, “Constructions of masculinity and their influence on men’s well-being: A theory of gender and health,” Social Science and Medicine, vol. 50 (2000), p. 1385–1401 (
  2. James R. Mahalik, Michael Di Bianca, and Michael P. Harris, “Men’s attitudes toward mask-wearing during covid-19: Understanding the complexities of mask-ulinity,” Journal of Health Psychology (2021) (
  3. Zena Wehbe et al., “Molecular and biological mechanisms underlying gender differences in covid-19 severity and mortality,” Frontiers in Immunology, vol. 12, May 2021 (