Covid Lessons (2)Looking back over the lessons learned from the pandemic and the policies, regulations and rules we used to limit its spread, we see encouraging signs as well as warnings and areas that should be improved.
First, very welcome news is that deaths related to cardiovascular diseases and cancer increased only slightly throughout the pandemic. There were widespread fears that people were not getting the care they needed as our health system shifted its focus to dealing with the pandemic. Not only were resources stretched to the extreme, but it was also thought that people might avoid going to hospital emergency units for fear of catching Covid. Although cancer can take years to cause someone’s death, the idea that we didn’t see a significant uptick in cancer deaths over the last two years is a great relief. Cardiovascular disease can kill quite quickly, so the idea that deaths with this cause didn’t increase substantially throughout the pandemic is even more reassuring. These outcomes are testament to the professionalism of our health care workers generally, and their ability to keep the system working under even the most difficult of circumstances.
Opioid related deaths spiked substantially during the pandemic, more than doubling on an annualized basis since 2019. Still, it’s hard to separate the impacts of the isolation caused by lockdowns with the increased availability of ever stronger and more dangerous synthetic drugs over the same period. Yet it’s reasonable to assume that had more help been readily available at least some of these deaths could have been prevented.
In terms of alcohol sales, there was an increase during the pandemic, but it followed a similar trend to previous years. This is certainly good news. What did accelerate, however, is that more of the alcohol sold was hard liquor. It’s difficult to measure whether problematic drinking habits increased during the lockdown, but this is an indication that alcohol dependencies may have grown.
For cigarettes, sales increased somewhat during early lockdowns, but in fact decreased at various points during the pandemic compared to 2019. This is also surprisingly good news, as many expected smokers to smoke more if they spent more time at home, where smoking isn’t as restricted as in public places.
Turning to excess body weight, it’s harder to get an idea of what’s happening, as it’s necessary to conduct surveys to ask people how their weight is doing. So far information is only widely available for periods ending in late 2020. There was a slight uptick during that year in the percentage of those under 34 who are overweight or obese. The rates for other age groups held approximately steady over the same period. It’s reassuring that this increase wasn’t more pronounced given how much easier it is to be sedentary when working from home. Time will tell if over the long term less healthy habits settle into our routines.
Still, the overall story thus far is that physical health has held up quite well throughout the pandemic. Looking at emotional health is a different story, the topic of next week’s column.