The entire world is focused on stopping the spread of COVID-19 as much as possible. Less new infections mean fewer hospital patients and more lives saved. We’re still in the heat of battle with COVID-19, and it’s hard to see too far in the future when things are changing so quickly.
However, a new study conducted by the Yale School of Public Health warns that the long-term mental and physical public health consequences of the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 will likely be felt for years and even decades to come.
Just like countless other downturns and disasters in history, the research team says that it’s society’s most vulnerable (the poor, sick, and disabled) that will bear the worst of these problems.
Most of these long-term health issues won’t have anything to do with COVID-19’s actual symptoms. Instead, the mental stress and anxiety the pandemic is causing, as well as the trickle-down effect it’s having on the entire healthcare industry sector (medication shortages, diminished access to medical care) will be the main culprits.
To come to their findings, researchers compared what’s happening right now all over the country to a more “traditional” type of disaster.
COVID-19 and everything that has come along with it has been bizarre, unexpected, and unlike anything the world has seen in a century. So, while it was impossible to find an exact one-for-one disaster to compare these events to, the study’s authors chose a somewhat recent disaster to base their predictions on Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on the city of New Orleans, flooding significant portions of the city and destroying countless homes and businesses. The detrimental impact Katrina had on New Orleans made it a suitable comparison point for COVID-19. Locals dealt with terror, anxiety, and stress during the hurricane itself and were then faced with great economic hardships afterward.
More specifically, long-term outcomes for low-income women living in New Orleans were studied. These women were surveyed the year before the hurricane, and every few years afterward to gauge how they were dealing with the devastating effects of Katrina. During the hurricane, surveyed women reported numerous traumatic events and experiences, such as mourning the loss of loved ones, medication shortages, and no access to needed medical care. Many Americans are dealing with the same issues today because of COVID-19.
Follow-up surveys administered to those women one, four, and 12 years after Hurricane Katrina revealed that many were still dealing with repercussions related to PTSD, general psychological distress, and physical health symptoms caused or exacerbated by the hurricane. It’s very likely that COVID-19’s effects will be worse, more widespread, and linger for even longer.
Considering the death, economic carnage, and strain COVID-19 has placed on our nation’s medical infrastructure, the study’s authors predict the pandemic will have severe long-term consequences for millions of Americans.
“This pandemic is likely to have profound short- and long-term consequences for physical and mental health,” says study co-author & Assistant Professor Sarah Lowe in a university release. “These impacts are likely to be even larger than what we have seen in previous disasters like Hurricane Katrina, given the distinctive qualities of the pandemic as a disaster.”
So, what can be done? We’re all hearing about social distancing and face masks a million times each day, but the team at Yale says more must be done to address everyone’s mental health, as well as physical health conditions unrelated to COVID-19. Countless people can’t access the medicines or treatments they need because all available resources are being placed on the coronavirus. The public health damage being caused by this alone will be felt for decades.
For mental health, one of the biggest challenges right now is fear, according to researchers. Everyone is afraid, whether just for themselves or their loved ones. Mental health advice and anxiety coping mechanisms should be talked about just as often as social distancing or hand washing.
Supplemental mental health support should also be provided for people who have recently lost loved ones to COVID-19 or went through a traumatic experience themselves related to the coronavirus. While wealthier families or individuals may be able to afford a therapist or pay more to get their medication, the people who have already been laid off because of COVID-19 are the most at risk for mental or physical health complications.
Unlike other disasters, COVID-19 doesn’t cause big explosions or devastating weather patterns, but this covert nature is part of what makes it so awful. Beyond its numerous direct health consequences, the coronavirus is negatively affecting countless people, and all of the societal, mental, and physical harm it’s causing won’t just disappear overnight.
“This study represents a step toward disentangling the health consequences of disasters, while also recognizing more longstanding factors that contribute to health disparities,” Professor Lowe concludes.
The full study can be found here, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
John Anderer is a frequent contributor to Ladders News.