COVID-19 pandemic has overwhelmed the health systems around the world. Doctors, nurses, and health workers are pulling long shifts and working themselves to exhaustion often at the cost of their own health. Many have succumbed to COVID-19 while trying to save lives. In most parts of the world, health workers continue to struggle, not just with rising number of cases but lack of PPE and other safety equipment for their own health.
Overburdened and under staffed health systems around the world have impacted other health services as well. Patients are avoiding going to the hospital for fear of being exposed and as a result routine checkups and even serious health conditions are being neglected.
Routine childhood vaccinations have been severely impacted. This is ironical since the world has been waiting for COVID-19 vaccine with fervent anticipation. The fall in immunization coverage could have catastrophic consequences. According to Dr Tewodaj Mengistu, member of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, “Routine immunisation programmes are facing enormous disruption across the globe due to this pandemic…Lockdowns make it harder for vaccinators and parents to reach vaccination sessions, health workers are being diverted to Covid-19 response, and misinformation and fear are keeping parents away.” This has led to a rise in common childhood infections and many diseases that had been eradicated, risk making a comeback.
Similarly cancer diagnosis, treatment and care has received setback during the pandemic. In India for instance, cancer treatment beds have been diverted for pandemic and lockdown has meant many newly diagnosed patients have been unable to travel. Incidentally cancer patients are also at most risk for developing complications due to COVID-19. However cancer hospitals are being forced to make difficult decisions regarding cancer surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation, particularly in the case of patients who are vulnerable due to their age and other medical conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes and kidney disease. According to a paper in The Lancet backlog for treatment accumulating in the UK could lead to increase in cancer fatality rates.
Similarly reproductive and maternal health services have been impacted throughout the world. Pregnant women have resorted to online appointments and many countries are encouraging home births. This has led to adverse outcomes in case of complications. Poor, vulnerable women and women of colour are more likely get lesser healthcare and have worse outcomes. Pregnant women are also facing mental health problems due to isolation and lack of support during and after birth. Pandemic has also affected IVF and other reproductive treatments for couples planning a family.
COVID-19 pandemic is also likely to see a rise in other non communicable diseases like diabetes, hearth disease and bone diseases since these are highly dependent on regular health checkups and blood tests and strict diets and routines. Not only has there been a reduction in screenings and tests but lockdowns have thrown off regular routines – people are not getting exercise and eating habits are also becoming erratic. Moreover, with hospital beds getting scarce, less vital surgeries are being delayed. People are being encouraged to seek telephonic consultations with doctors and that is often leading to not so effective diagnosis and treatment. Worse, many are treating conditions with alternate remedies or over the counter medications, often with detrimental effects.
Mental health is being called the other pandemic during COVID-19 times. There has been overall increase in anxiety due to pandemic. This is especially true for the elderly, vulnerable, poor and people with co morbidities. People are constantly and sometimes obsessively watching out for symptoms and with on going social isolation it is getting hard. Lockdowns have also increased loneliness and depression among many without social support systems. Many have lost their jobs and the financial strain has led to severe mental stress. Parents have to often deal with home schooling, working from home while managing the household without any support. COVID-19 has led to relationship strains among many as well. Children have been hard hit without school and friends and reacting to the panic around the pandemic.
A lot of people who already had mental health issues have not been able to seek the medication and support they require. Changes in daily routine, less time for self care, and the ‘new normal’ that is here to stay for a while have affected sleep and diets. Moreover, neglect of other health conditions, as discussed above, has also affected mental well being. Serious issues like domestic violence, drug and substance abuse and alcoholism have increased as well and women and children, often at the receiving end, have been unable to seek any help. This is a very serious matter and many governments around the world have instituted helplines for such purposes.
Neglect of other health conditions will have serious long-term consequences even after pandemic is controlled. The northern hemisphere is approaching winter and will face seasonal flu pandemic. With symptoms similar to COVID-19, this will put further strain on people and health workers. Dengue is also set to rise with monsoons, especially in South and South East Asia. Moreover, economic downturns throughout the world will put an additional worry on people seeking health care privately through out of pocket expenses – which is the case with most developing countries.
The governments across the world make health care a priority. The pandemic has put a spotlight on the essentiality of heath for every aspect of life. Investments in healthcare are needed not just for tackling COVID-19 but host of other health conditions that are being neglected and overlooked as healthcare is overwhelmed. Long term health of the nation is vital for economic development, social progress and overall well being.