Like the Spanish Flu a hundred years ago, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), or as it’s more widely known as the novel coronavirus or COVID-19, reminded mankind of its insignificance in the universal order of things. In the health policy world, we often use the phrase “diseases know no borders” and COVID-19 can attest to this. The virus spread, through the inevitable consequences of globalization, from Asia to Europe and beyond at a rapid pace and within three months the world neared one million cases as healthcare systems struggled to carry the sudden burden. Indeed, the Swine Flu and Ebola, reminded us of this possibility, but Covid-19 came with a vengeance and brought us to our knees. Humans were forced to move back decades regarding their advancement to prevent the spread of this virus. So influential was this pandemic that, even problems like climate change and pollution created by man’s advancement, seem to gradually recede during social distancing and lockdown. Now that social distancing measures are gradually being lifted, are we going back to normal, or are we willing to accept culture change into a “new normal” where the ideals of population health can be seen to be not such a difficult task.
How often do we wash our hands regularly, especially after we cough or sneeze? How often do we clean and disinfect frequently touched areas? How often do we practice social distancing in places where crowds are likely, especially during flu season? For those of us who think these non-pharmaceutical measures to prevent the spread of infectious respiratory disease may be new, IT’S NOT. During flu season these are some of the measures to be employed to prevent the spread of Influenza and other coronaviruses that may cause the common cold or flu. We must also remember that, the morbidity and mortality rate of the common flu also taps into our healthcare capacity reserves annually. If the Covid-19 pandemic now creates a “new normal” where our hygiene is concerned, maybe we could see less incidence of respiratory disease during flu season that can translate into less expenditure for healthcare in the long-term.
During the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, we saw the closure of many fast-food restaurants. Some found difficulty adapting, as T&T has evolved from a “cook at home” culture to one where we access the convenience of a fast-food meal in the fast-paced world of work. They say “necessity is the mother of invention”, and we all know food is a necessity. The avalanche of social media posts where many demonstrated their culinary ability in preparing a healthy meal, bears testimony to how this pandemic reversed our unhealthy fast food norm. In addition, many of the local framers saw an increase in turnover and opportunity for sales as the race to survival in this pandemic required the sourcing of fresh produce to prepare meals. The pandemic has only affected the normal western unhealthy fast-food diet for several months. This is not sufficient time to allow for adequate data to make an association between population health and such a change in eating habits. But the evidence is clear that a fast-food diet is linked to chronic non-communicable diseases like diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol. Would the “new normal” of accessing local produce and healthy home-cooked meals endure now that fast food restaurants are currently reopened for limited hours? Will the population really appreciate the health benefits if they forego the ease and convenience of a fast-food meal and take the time and effort to prepare healthy home-cooked meals for their family? Was the Covid-19 pandemic sufficient to influence policy change regarding healthy diets, food safety and security? Only time will tell.
Not, only in T&T, but internationally, rivers became clearer and air quality was improved during the Covid-19 pandemic. Because of the social distancing measures, wildlife got a chance to breathe, not only fresh air but through the absence of humans, in areas, they once roamed. Pollution and global warming are two issues that put mankind in a precarious position with respect to survival in the coming future. All the data points to the advancement of the human species, and its activity of achieving this, as the cause of pollution and global warming. T&T was once placed as a major contributor to carbon emotions globally and with the landfills more and more visible, our pollution problem is no secret. During the Covid-19 pandemic, social distancing saw many go online with regard to work and attending meetings. All work and meetings were done from home by accessing an appropriate online platform. The strict Stay At Home measures saw a reduction of traffic on the roads and a reduction of fossil fuel usage. Closure of non-essential survives added to this reduce need to use vehicles as well as a reduction in the disposal of non-biodegradable packaging because many were forced to buy fresh produce. Such changes translate into major population health benefits by the reduction of pollution and climate change. Now that social distancing is being rolled back, it is very worrying that pollution and climate change will continue or be made worse putting population health in grave danger.
It is no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic gave us a time-out to think about the health impacts we have incurred upon ourselves due to our advancement. Will the lessons learned to endure as we slowly ease social distancing or will they fade over time and we would have lost this opportunity to better ourselves?
Dr Visham Bhimull
Primary Care Physician
Diploma in Family Medicine (UWI)