Is “Ob*sity” a Risk Factor For Coronavirus (COVID-19)?

medical fatphobia killsI want to start by saying that I’m not trying to give anyone advice on how to handle the current pandemic. I am personally taking as many precautions as possible. I also want to acknowledge that our choices as to how to handle this are all affected by our privilege and that the most marginalized people face the most harm.

A question that I am getting A LOT recently is “I’m hearing that “ob*sity” is a risk factor for contracting COVID-19 – is that true?”

I’ll start here by saying that I think the biggest concern is medical fatphobia – that fat people will not be able to access the same care as similarly situated thin people.

I also want to point out that the word “ob*sity” was created for the sole purpose of pathologizing a body size and it is not a word that I think is appropriate to use in any context (for the reasons below and more) and I’m only using it here because it’s what’s used in the lexicon and it’s (mis)use is part of the issue.)

When it comes to risk factors, correlation is not causation and weight stigma within the medical field, including in medical practice and research, is well established and so must be considered when considering any “data” that involves weight/BMI.

“Ob*sity” is the result of a math equation (weight in pounds time 703 divided by height in inches squared is greater than or equal to 30) By the “logic” here I’m at greater risk along with a good portion of the NFL and a whole lot of bodybuilders, so unless all of us have been shown to be at greater risk, this is a very questionable statement of risk.

Even if they are trying to talk about the actual presence of adipose tissue, there would have to be data that showed that the actual presence of adipose tissue increased risk – and even if that were the case “ob*sity” would be the incorrect word to use since BMI does not, in any way, measure body composition.

So-called “ob*se” people don’t have anything in common except a height/weight ratio.  This group has as much diversity as any group of people who happen to share a single physical characteristic.

In fact, the things that this group is most likely to share are experiencing weight stigma, and a lifetime of dieting/weight-cycling. Both of which are also correlated with the same health issues that are commonly correlated with having a larger body, and neither of which are ever controlled for in studies about health outcomes making these confounding variables.

Bottom line: conflating “ob*sity” with health/risk status is not an evidence-based practice and while it may not be a negative outcome for fat people to take extra precautions, it can create direct harm, including when blaming fat people for our health issues creates barriers to healthcare access.

To read more about this, check out Christy Harrison’s excellent piece about this.

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7 thoughts on “Is “Ob*sity” a Risk Factor For Coronavirus (COVID-19)?

  1. That is what I thought. It is just the how can I put this as far away from myself and mortality as possible. Fat cells do not attract viruses.

  2. Thank you for addressing this! I the O-word in lists of risk factors for death (along with asthma, high BP, and other stuff). I concluded that this is yet another example of people just reaching for the most convenient scapegoat.

  3. The actual health issues can definitely make it harder to fight off an illness, especially one the body has no experience with. Fat, in and of itself, doesn’t seem to cause problems other than getting proper treatment. So let’s all reduce our exposure and take care of ourselves as best we can.

  4. Hey, something just occurred to me. If more patients are having only phone contact with health care providers, I wonder if the fat people will get any better treatment? I had a phone convo today about my diabetes with someone who hasn’t seen me in person, and while we talked about what I ate (and my movement, sleeping, medication etc), there was no mention of losing weight.

    1. You mean, a fat person might be able to call in, and report shortness of breath and a persistent dry cough and fever, and NOT be brushed off with pamphlets for Jenny Craig and “WW”? Oooh! What about chills and diarheah? Nosebleeds? Headaches? Sharp stabbing pains in their sides? Blood in the stool? Severed limbs?

      I’m hoping they would be told to actually come in for treatment for at least one of those, and if they are, and do come in, I’m hoping the doctor won’t take one look at them, and say, “OH! I shouldn’t have told you to come in to get treatment! I see it now. You just need to be told to diet and exercise, because clearly, you’ve never been told that before, you obviously never have eaten a salad or walked a mile, and after you do that for long enough to starve away all your problems, you won’t need medical treatment, after all.”

      Because you’ll be dead, and corpses don’t need medical treatment.

  5. I recently came across a Daily Mail article, accompanied by a headless fatty photo, making a big deal of how 63% of coronavirus pts in intensive care, in the UK, are “overweight.”

    Also in the article: “the finding…will be concerning for health bosses, as two thirds of adults in the country fall into the category.”

    (In other words, BMI has no bearing on whether you end up in intensive care.)

    1. But oh how much better we feel when we can point at someone and blame them for getting what we our self fear! I’m OK, it’s THEM who will get sick and die…

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