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Autoimmune diseases cause your body’s immune system, or "germ police force," to identify healthy tissue as an invading pathogen. They launch a full-scale attack that leads to pain, inflammation and a host of other unpleasant symptoms that can deteriorate your quality of life. People with autoimmune diseases are at increased risk of infection during COVID-19, and guess what? Women have an increased risk of having autoimmune diseases. Why is this, and how does it impact women’s standing during the COVID-19 pandemic?

For years, researchers puzzled over why women suffer from higher rates of autoimmune diseases like lupus. Turns out, there’s a scientific reason cis women are more exposed to these conditions: recent evidence points to a molecular switch called VGLL3 that exists in higher levels in their skin cells. Too much of this substance prompts the immune system to fly into overdrive and begin attacking itself. The effects are not only skin-deep — they extend to other organs of the body as well.

Researchers dug deeper and found that the excess VGLL3 in skin cells changes the expression of immune system genes. They hypothesize that, from an evolutionary standpoint, women needed more of this substance to protect against pathogens so that they could reproduce. Apparently, Mother Nature must have decided that autoimmune disease was a small price to pay for the continuity of the human race.

The problem that arises in the modern world is the exposure to ongoing low-level stresses and pathogens about which our primitive ancestors never dreamed. Early australopithecines didn’t have to deal with micromanaging bosses or rush-hour traffic. They didn’t enjoy the luxury of staying home for 24 hours after a fever passed — they had to forage to survive. The supercharged immune responses that enabled survival on the savannah now kick into high gear when faced with tight deadlines. However, without anything but paper tigers to fight, it turns the battle inward.

Unfortunately, today, societal pressures like balancing work with raising a family fall disproportionately on women’s shoulders. If a child becomes sick in a heterosexual household, it’s often the woman who calls in to tend to their needs. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she usually takes over teaching home classes and preparing lunches while working from home. This increased stress load can spur painful flare-ups in those with autoimmune conditions like lupus or Crohn’s disease.

Unfortunately, even though women tend to the lioness’s share of household responsibilities, we don’t get a break in the workplace. This lack of work-life balance disrupts hormones and spurs an increase in blood levels of cortisol, which elevates the inflammatory response. It also wreaks havoc on the mind by increasing anxiety, which feeds back into the vicious pain spiral. 

Aside from the physical component, there are myriad reasons women are more likely to suffer from the effects of the pandemic. Here are just a few.

Women Are More Likely to Work Low-Wage and Gig Jobs

Many women feel attracted to gig-economy labor because of the flexibility such positions allow. If a mother works a traditional nine-to-five, she has to ask permission from her employer to take her child to their annual dentist appointment. With a flex job like driving for Uber, she merely clears her schedule for that two-hour slot.

Unfortunately, such employment arrangements rarely, if ever, offer benefits. Women with autoimmune disorders already often go years without a diagnosis because they are tricky to pinpoint. One unexpected bill can spiral a woman into poverty. In the U.S., where health coverage for those under 65 typically comes from employers, a single visit to the hospital can herald bankruptcy for the uninsured.

Women Still Earn Less Than Men

In 2020, a woman still makes only $.81 for every dollar a man makes — and that’s assuming she’s white and non-Hispanic. Black women earn less compared to their white counterparts, and Hispanic women fare the worst. When you add that women typically interrupt their careers to raise a family, they fall even further behind. As a result, they may head to work, pandemic or no pandemic, because they have bills to pay and not enough saved to cover emergencies.

Women are also more likely to work with the public. We still outnumber men in professions like childcare and hospitality, and entrepreneurial females gravitate toward service-oriented businesses like personal assistants and massage therapists. All of these roles involve working directly with others, which increases one’s chance of infection.

Child Care Falls on Women’s Shoulders

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, physicians erroneously believed it only affected the elderly. Later events showed that those of all ages could contract the virus. Women who are married tend to stay home with sick children, which sometimes results in conflict or adverse action in the workplace.

Women are statistically more prone to autoimmune diseases, and when you add in a pandemic, many are in dire straits. When socioeconomic factors increase the risk of getting sick, it’s a sign that society needs to look at implementing meaningful changes to protect lives.

Top photo: Unsplash / _Mxsh_

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Mia Barnes is a health and lifestyle journalist and the Editor in Chief at Body+Mind. She enjoys writing about well-being, social justice, and all the ways that those two elements intersect.

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