Covid-19 has taken a disproportionate toll on people with underlying health conditions.
Some experts say the crisis has brought to light the poor state of our health as a nation. But in many communities, it has also highlighted the link between poor health and poverty.
So what lessons has the coronavirus taught us – and will ministers and health leaders act on it?
‘Meet my demons’
People with type 2 diabetes, often associated with overweight or obesity, have been particularly vulnerable to becoming seriously ill with Covid-19.
About a fifth of all those who died after contracting coronavirus were diabetics.
Roxana Falfara knows that she belongs to this dangerous category.
Since she was a child, Roxana has had a difficult relationship with food.
She understands that her diet is linked to her mental health, but says it doesn’t make it easier to manage.
“Every time you sit down at a table, you meet your demons. So you are having addiction every time you have to eat.
As an adult, Roxana became very overweight and developed type 2 diabetes.
Now she is trying to eat healthier and lose weight before her second surgery.
But, with her heightened vulnerability to Covid-19, the past few months have been difficult for her.
“I had this anxiety about going out, especially knowing I had type 2 diabetes,” she says. “I’m at a high level of danger so I tried to avoid going out as much as I could. ”
In his hometown of Sheffield, around 60% of the adult population is overweight or obese.
And like Roxana, this group was among the people most at risk of becoming seriously ill during the pandemic.
The coronavirus has exposed the deep inequalities in our health.
What happened in Sheffield at the height of the coronavirus pandemic mirrors what has happened in many cities across the UK.
The wealthiest parts of Sheffield got away with it virtually unscathed. But in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, they had some of the highest death rates in the whole country.
For Sheffield’s Director of Public Health, Greg Fell, this raises really tough questions about the underlying state of our public health.
He describes it as a complex, multi-layered image.
“These are the environments in which we live. It’s poverty, it’s substandard housing, it’s the lack of educational opportunities, it’s employment opportunities, ”he said.
“Economic policy, housing policy, all of these things make a difference to health, far more than the treatment the NHS can offer. “
So what has this coronavirus pandemic told us about the underlying state of our health – and more broadly, our society?
Earlier this year, an influential report warned that life expectancy – especially among the poor – had stagnated.
Today, the author of this report, Sir Michael Marmot, says the coronavirus has strengthened the link between poverty and poor health.
“Health and health equity, the equitable distribution of health, tells us a lot about the performance of society,” he says.
“And the fact that health has stopped improving, that life expectancy has stagnated and that inequality in life expectancy is increasing – we learn that over the past decade, the society has stopped improving and inequalities in society have increased.
“So when the pandemic came, it just exaggerated, it exposed and amplified these inequalities. ”
For many public health experts, the coronavirus crisis is the inevitable consequence of decades of failure to tackle our bad habits.
Professor John Wass has spent much of his professional life studying a pandemic that has been on the rise for decades – obesity.
“The fact that we have one of the highest death rates in the world is something you really have to understand,” he says.
“We are not a healthy nation when it comes to, for example, obesity statistics, diabetes statistics, etc.
“It’s not a simple thing. It’s not just about selling fewer McDonalds on the streets.
“We need a situation where health is linked to education, it is linked to healthy food and agriculture, it is linked to business.
“So we need a common approach between all government departments.
“It’s complicated – but it’s a complicated thing that needs a solution. “
Coronavirus: an opportunity?
Governments set the direction of policy, but the task of creating real change on the ground falls on people like Sheffield’s director of public health.
And despite the challenges posed by the coronavirus, Greg Fell is still optimistic that the situation we find ourselves in could present an opportunity.
“We know we have neglected the health of the public for many, many years,” he says. “Now is a great time to start correcting some of this.
“We know that health is unevenly distributed. We know that people from black ethnic minorities live shorter and less healthy lives than those of us who are British white.
“We know that those with disabilities live shorter lives and are in poorer health. We know that those who live in the poorest parts of our cities have shorter lives and poorer health.
“So now is a great time to fix this, there has never been a better time to fix this. ”
As communities across the UK reflect on their experience with the coronavirus, the challenge for political leaders is how to apply the lessons of the pandemic.
It is difficult to draw any conclusion other than that a true transformation in the health of our nation will require fundamental changes in society.
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