How COVID-19 is affecting us differently

How COVID-19 is affecting us differently

With the focus on a COVID-19 vaccination and economic recovery, experts reveal how the virus is impacting society in vastly different ways across age and gender.

Vaccines in older people

With vaccine testing for SARS-CoV-2 in full swing around the world, the first generation of vaccines may not provide full, long-term protection from infection for older individuals, according to Dr Kylie Quinn, a Vice-Chancellor's Research Fellow in the School of Health and Biomedical Sciences.

“First generation vaccines might only provide partial or short-term protection, or protection from infection instead of protection from disease in older people,” she explained.

This was because older people tended to have lower immune responses to vaccines, as seen with the flu and the shingles vaccines.

“Vaccines for older folks need a more tailored design, but tailored design takes time, which we won’t have with the first generation of vaccines,” Quinn said.

She said older people were in greatest need of a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2, as they were vastly more likely to suffer from severe disease with COVID-19.

 “We need to start designing the next generation of vaccines for SARS-CoV-2 now and, in particular, we need to start designing vaccines for at-risk populations like older people,” she said.

Arm and vaccine Males and females can differ significantly in how they respond to vaccines throughout their lifespan

Vaccines in men

Males and females can differ significantly in how they respond to vaccines throughout their lifespan, according to the Director of the Biomedical and Health Innovation Enabling Capability Platform, Professor Magdalena Plebanski.

For example, overall, males usually mount fewer antibody responses to many vaccines compared to females. 

“The use of the tuberculosis vaccine Bacille Calmette-Guérin (BCG) is one of the major current approaches being explored to protect against COVID-19 by engaging its 'non-specific’ or ‘heterologous’ protective effects,” she said.  

“Such effects of the BCG vaccine have been found in previous studies to work differently in males and females, and it’s therefore possible that the degree of protection against COVID-19 will differ in males and females.”

She said while sex differences in immunity were not usually considered in the initial stages of developing and pre-clinically testing the many COVID-19 vaccines in development, males and females were being included in all the planned phase I and II clinical trials.

“The good news specifically for the BCG trials is that more than 10,000 individuals will be enrolled globally for this vaccine testing, which will provide sufficient numbers of males and females for sex-differential effects to be evident.”

Stressed female

Impact of COVID-19 on gender equality

Women were suffering the economic brunt of the pandemic, according to RMIT Lecturer in Economics and a Research Fellow with the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard University Dr Leonore Risse.

“The bulk of the jobs shed due to COVID-19 restrictions are in the service industries – hospitality, food services, tourism, travel, retail trade – are female-concentrated,” she said.

“These women are losing work hours or being squeezed out of the workforce altogether, especially part-time workers.

“In comparison, the industries that employ more men – construction, manufacturing, transport, warehousing and mining – involve less direct contact with the public, meaning men’s jobs have been less disrupted by the COVID-19 restrictions."

These effects of the coronavirus would lead to a widening of the gender pay gap, she warned.

“It’s crucial we find ways to use these females’ workers’ skills in other ways, steering them towards the industries that are growing in demand and innovatively adapting to a COVID-19 world." 

Associate Professor in Criminology and Justice Studies Dr Anastasia Powell said the COVID-19 lockdown had taken a serious toll on women’s safety and economic and career progression. 

“The social isolation during the lockdown has had the side-effect of placing women at greater risk of experiencing violence and abuse in the home, and at the hands of a male partner or family member,” she said.

“But as society slowly emerges, figures are showing that the pandemic measures are also impacting women more severely than men in the areas of job losses, income losses, and increased care-taking roles at home."

She said the economic and career progression interruptions of losing work, losing hours, and having increased responsibilities at home, were likely to have a longer-term effect on women's equality.

“Gender inequality is not only a human rights issue but is the underlying driver that places women at risk of violence,” Powell said.

“It is crucial that both governments and workplaces examine their policies and post-COVID-19 measures to ensure women are not paying a greater price in response to this pandemic.”

 

Story: Diana Robertson

 

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