The pandemic, and wider governmental and societal responses to it, have exposed existing inequalities in our society, with implications for the nation's long-term health.
The Health Foundation’s COVID-19 impact inquiry is exploring the pandemic’s implications for health and health inequalities across the UK with a focus on three time periods in relation to the pandemic – before, during and after. It will also shine a light on groups who have been disproportionately affected, hearing from a diverse set of voices across the UK to inform its robust analysis.
Findings from the inquiry will report in July 2021, but here we share the latest learning.
Understanding long COVID
In the UK, an estimated 1.1 million people have reported symptoms lasting for more than four weeks after their first suspected COVID-19 infection. That's 1 in 5 people who tested positive for the virus. The COVID-19 impact inquiry team has reviewed emerging evidence on long COVID, summarising their findings to date and what they mean for the nation’s health in this blog.
Evidence shows that many people report experiencing symptoms for more than six months – commonly fatigue, breathlessness and headaches. There is also emerging evidence that the effects of long COVID may be different and more severe for people who have been admitted to hospital or intensive care.
Long COVID does not affect everyone equally, with the impacts differing by age, gender and pre-existing health status. Prevalence is higher in the most deprived areas compared to the least deprived areas.
In addition to the health implications, long COVID also carries social consequences for individuals and their families. It can affect many aspects of day-to-day life, such as the ability to work or caring responsibilities.
An unequal toll on mental health
The mental health impact of the pandemic is still emerging and we know that psychological trauma can take time to reveal itself. However, it’s clear that the past year has had a massive impact on people’s mental health, as summarised in this recent blog by Vanessa Pinfold from the McPin Foundation.
The mental health effects of the pandemic have not been the same for everyone. And in this unique period of national reflection, we should focus on groups who were struggling both before and during the pandemic.
Vanessa welcomes the increased public awareness of and attention on mental health the pandemic has prompted. She outlines what our response should be in order to address mental health at different levels – system and society, community and neighbourhood, individual and household.
The impact of COVID-19 on women
The pandemic has affected us all but women in the UK have faced particular challenges, as explained in this blog from Mehrunisha Suleman. It's vital that we understand how the pandemic has impacted women, especially women experiencing other inequalities such as disabled women and those from ethnic minority communities, and as we move through recovery, what society can do to counter these impacts.
The majority of key workers are female, and women have shouldered more of the burden of educating children at home while schools were closed. Women are also feeling the effects of the pandemic’s economic impact. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, women were more likely than men to be in uncertain employment and tended to be overrepresented in retail and hospitality, which were effectively shut down during the pandemic. It’s also been shown that women’s mental health deteriorated almost twice as much as men’s during the first lockdown.
Mehrunisha argues that as the latest lockdown unwinds, this disproportionate impact on women must be factored into policymakers’ decisions for the future.
A year to learn from
Jo Bibby, Director of Health, marks the anniversary of the first lockdown in the UK in her blog, 1 year on since lockdown began – our lives have changed but what lessons have we learned?.
One of the most immediate and apparent lessons from the pandemic has been the value of robust crisis planning to ensure the continuation of health services. During the first lockdown, routine appointments and other health checks stopped and referrals and waiting times have since reached a record high. Even though the second lockdown saw more services maintained, the full impact of the pandemic on people’s health is not yet fully understood.
The wider health impacts are also still unfolding, including the impact of the disruption to the economy on people’s livelihoods and long-term health. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the role of the wider determinants of health into sharp focus, from employment and income, to education and housing. Some groups have been more affected than others, with young people and those from minority ethnic communities more likely to have experienced job loss, furloughing or reduced pay during the pandemic.
As we begin to recover from this coronavirus pandemic, the challenge for decision makers is whether inequalities and their consequences for people’s health become further entrenched or whether we can rebuild a fairer society. Findings from the COVID-19 impact inquiry will bring forward the evidence needed to make these decisions, providing robust analysis that aims to inform the development of the government's COVID-19 recovery plan. In developing these plans, the government would do well to remember that a healthy population is one of our nation’s most important assets.
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This content originally featured in our email newsletter, which explores perspectives and expert opinion on a different health or health care topic each month.