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Jemima Sinclair considers the importance our society places on height, in light of new data that suggests taller people are more susceptible to catching Covid-19.

By Jemima Sinclair - 21st August 2020

A new study by data scientists in UK, US and Norway has just suggested that men over 6ft tall are almost twice as likely to get Covid-19 than others, and there's a lot to unpack here. 

To begin with, and most importantly, this is potentially key evidence that the virus is airborne and spread through aerosols, something that may further our understanding of the virus and lead towards a quicker development of treatment and vaccines. Furthermore, the widespread reaction to this particular study highlights some of the major problems with media-driven responses to Covid-19; every major newspaper has focused on the extent to which height is a predicator for Covid-19, while severely underreporting the study's other findings that link Covid-19 with activities typical of people of lower socioeconomic status, such as shared kitchen and living spaces. 

However, as a woman who is over 6ft tall, my knee-jerk reaction was not to consider either of these things. Instead, I headed straight into the Tall Girl mind-set that not only is being tall objectively terrible, as proven by the fact that we're more susceptible to Covid-19, but being tall and female is worse, because female results weren't even included in the study. So not only are we shafted by the disadvantage of being tall, but as girls, we're also marginalised within the tall community because 'so few women' are over 6ft that there's no point in studying them. Poor us.

But then I gave myself a metaphorical slap around the face. In times as bizarre and frankly dystopian as these, the audacity of someone just over 6ft complaining about a 'disadvantage' is laughable. Anyone who's seen the 2019 Netflix film 'Tall Girl' (or more likely its hundreds of parodies on TikTok) will remember the backlash at the title character whining, 'You think your life is hard? I'm a high-school junior wearing… men's Size 13 Nikes. Beat that.' One TikTok user succinctly replied to this, 'I've got cancer'. In other words, minor inconveniences based on being slightly above average height are not grounds for believing your life is harder than anyone else's. I'm not saying it's always a joy to be a tall girl, especially in senior school – standing in the back row of school photos, occasionally being referred to as 'giraffe', and (most crushingly) watching my short friends date all the available tall boys were all part of the typical Tall Experience. But everyone has a terrible time for some reason in school, and out of that environment, the biggest height-related issue I face now is worrying the Top-Shop sale will run out of tall jeans. And I'm well aware that in the current circumstances, it would be an insane privilege to put energy into worrying about that. 

Not every tall person has it as easy though. My 'little' brother, 6'8 at seventeen years old, faces far more trouble in his daily life thanks to his height – doorways are too low, beds are too short, hardly any clothes are available in his size and so on – and yet at the moment his biggest worry is his future. As one of the Year 13 students confronted with cancelled A Levels and government-decided grades this year, he hasn't got the luxury of worrying that his feet will be hanging off a single bed in halls; all he cares about is whether he'll be going to university in the first place. 

Even if he did have time to worry about his height, there's a good chance he wouldn't: a wealth of evidence suggests that tall people have had happier childhoods, are more likely to succeed, and end up wealthier than average. Livescience, links greater height to better nutrition in childhood and suggests taller people are more likely to be hired for jobs, while a study from Exeter University in 2016 demonstrated that for men, every 6.3 cm in height added about £1,580 to their annual salary (the Guardian article which reported this adds, characteristically, 'A smaller effect was seen for women'). This all seems to suggest what many people have suspected for centuries: people (especially men) who are tall, are more fortunate than those who are not.

Therefore, though this Covid-19 study demonstrates there's a way in which tall people actually do have it rough, the universal tall experience is fairly decent. Beyond this, the fact that reports are downplaying the study's other findings in favour of a focus on height suggests a more worrying trend. At first, this focus makes complete sense: it gives strong evidence that Covid-19 is an airborne virus, which is pretty ground-breaking. But it's interesting that the connection between height and Covid-19 fascinates us more than the other links found in this study. Shared kitchens, use of public transport, and lower income levels are also reported in the study to be predicators of Covid-19, but these are relegated to further down the list in most of the articles available. Even in the stupor of a locked-down summer, it doesn't take much thinking to realise that these other findings are fairly conclusively linked to lower socioeconomic status. 

With a cynical mind-set (the kind that can only come from months stuck at home watching the news with my parents), it could seem as though the sensational appeal of the 'height link' exemplifies the media's boredom with talking about those pesky poor people. It seems reporters have reached their breaking point for pretending to care about the multiple studies showing that BAME people, the elderly, people with underlying conditions and those with lower incomes are disproportionally affected, instead rejoicing that finally, there's an angle on Covid-19 that isn't depressingly linked to poverty and disadvantage.  And as previously discussed, tall people statistically fit this profile far less than anyone else. 

The height focus may also imply that tall people (and perhaps by extension people of higher socioeconomic status) are seen as unfairly targeted by the virus, while those who are more disadvantaged somehow deserve it more. There's definitely a sense that the government and media see other factors as preventable (Just travel by car! Just spend time in your own garden!), despite these solutions' links to higher incomes. In contrast, height is seen as random, even though it can be anything but. 

It's a fairly dark reading, but these are fairly dark times. Hopefully it'll turn out that all this is just quarantine-brain talking, and the truth is people care about all these factors equally. But I won't hold my breath to find out – even if it does halve the risk of Covid-19 at my height. 

SOURCES

The study: https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.07.13.20152819v1

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