It has now been a year since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has claimed millions of lives and changed the ways in which each of us relates to and navigates the world. How has the pandemic impacted our lives these past 12 months? Medical News Today assess the situation.
A year ago, on March 11, 2020, the director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, declared that the global COVID-19 epidemics had become so widespread that they constituted a pandemic.
“[The] WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock, and we are deeply concerned, both by the alarming levels of spread and severity and by the alarming levels of inaction. We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic.”
With these few words, Dr. Tedros made clear that the way in which we lived was going to change imminently — and it did.
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Since then, there have been more than 118.7 million COVID-19 cases globally and more than 2.6 million COVID-19-related deaths.
Local and international restrictions meant to curb the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, have included stay at home orders, travel bans, restrictions on meeting people from other households, and the closure of nonessential stores, as well as gyms, cinemas, museums, art galleries, and even places of worship.
Remote work and job insecurity
Because of the pandemic, millions of people worldwide have started working from home. According to a European Commission brief, approximately 40% of all people employed in the European Union “began to telework full time as a result of the pandemic.”
In the United States, 41.8% of the workforce was working remotely full time in December 2020, and 56.8% were doing so some of the time, according to an Upwork report.
Upwork Chief Economist Adam Ozimek notes: “Our research shows the long-lasting impact that remote work and COVID-19 are likely to have on how hiring managers think about their organizations. As businesses adapt and learn from this remote work experiment, many are altering their long-term plans to accommodate this way of working.”
Working from home can certainly have both positive and negative effects on employees’ well-being. A review published in BMC Public Health in November 2020 relayed several reported effects of remote work on physical and mental well-being.
Working from home was sometimes associated with more emotional exhaustion, especially in people who felt isolated from their colleagues and thus had less social support.
Others, however, reported feeling more content because they did not have to face a stressful workplace on a daily basis.
The review also noted that “Males had higher levels of work exhaustion following the commencement of telework,” while, “Females reported higher levels of work exhaustion, compared to their colleagues who remained at the office.”
This may reflect the persistence of traditional gender roles, in which women tend to take on the majority of the childcare and household chores.
A study published in January 2021, and covered by MNT, found that in 36.6% of almost 200 couples surveyed, women who worked from home due to the pandemic still took on most of the childcare responsibilities.
The authors were surprised that they had to acknowledge the persistence of strict gender roles, even as individuals and couples have had to adapt in new ways to the difficulties posed by the pandemic.
“Most people have never undergone anything like this before, where all of a sudden they can’t rely on their normal childcare, and most people’s work situation has changed, too. We thought this would be a chance for men to step in and partake equally in childcare, but for many couples, we didn’t see that happen.”
– Corresponding author Dr. Kristin M. Shockley
Layoffs and closing businesses
Meanwhile, not everyone has been able to retain their jobs. A Pew Research Center report published in September 2020 indicates that 25% of U.S. adults said that “They or someone in their household was laid off or lost their job” as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Shockingly, a National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) report showed that women accounted for all of the job losses recorded in the U.S. in December 2020, hinting at persistent and deeply rooted gender inequities.
This finding is “devastating,” says Emily Martin, NWLC’s vice president for education and workplace justice, in an interview with CNBC. “I’m concerned that it may have devastating effects for months and years to come.”
Small independent businesses have also taken major hits throughout this “pandemic year.” An analysis of a survey of more than 5,800 small U.S.-based businesses, published in July 2020, revealed that 41.3% of the businesses were “temporarily closed because of COVID-19,” while 1.8% had closed their doors for good.
One reader from Brazil who contacted MNT to explain how the pandemic had affected them emphasized the impact of economic insecurity.
“I had to stop working suddenly when the lockdown happened here in São Paulo,” they told us. “I had a small business, but [due to health issues] I had to stay at home.”
“After almost a year, I am selling my trade,” they explained, “because we have no prospect of returning to normal life, even with the vaccine. The vaccine is not available to everyone yet.”
This atmosphere of occupational and financial insecurity is likely to have had a deep impact, both on people’s mental health and whether they can access primary healthcare.
Past research has shown that economic insecurity has a “substantial” negative effect on mental health and that worries about future finances seem to have the greatest effect. These concerns seem to hit men particularly hard, as they may be more inclined to feel that they have to fulfill the role of the “breadwinner” for their families.
A study published in September 2020 and covered by MNT showed that financial insecurity is linked to an increase in the risk of attempting suicide.
Since the researchers had collected this data before the pandemic, they were concerned by the likely scale of the effect of the economic difficulties spurred by worldwide lockdowns.
“Our research shows that financial stressors play a major role in suicides, and this needs to be recognized and appreciated in light of the unprecedented financial instability triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. We could well be seeing a dramatic increase in suicide rates moving forward,” lead author Prof. Eric Elbogen warns.
Homeschooling on the rise
The pandemic has also forced more parents and caregivers to homeschool their children. The United Kingdom’s Office for National Statistics found that between May and June 2020, 87% of parents reported homeschooling at least one child in their household as a result of the pandemic.
In the U.S., the National Home Education Research Institute offer a “conservative estimate” of a “10% growth in the absolute number of homeschool students during [the] 2020–2021 school year.”
This, they say, would bring the number of homeschool students to “roughly 2.75 million,” a sizeable increase from the 2.5 million estimated in spring 2019.
Last autumn, Henrietta Fore, executive director of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), warned that “At least 24 million children are projected to drop out of school due to COVID-19″ and that “The longer children remain out of school, the less likely they are to return.”
Fore also expressed concern that prolonged homeschooling could lead to reductions in emotional well-being for children, and in some extreme cases, may even jeopardize their safety.
“We know that closing schools for prolonged periods of time [has] devastating consequences for children. They become more exposed to physical and emotional violence. Their mental health is affected. They are more vulnerable to child labor, sexual abuse, and are less likely to break out of the cycle of poverty.”
– UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore
One study published in European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry in January 2021 also looked at the effect of enforced homeschooling rules on the well-being of parents.
The researchers spoke to 6,720 parents. Among them, 2,002 had a child with a diagnosed mental health condition. The parents hailed from seven countries: the U.K., Sweden, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and Italy.
Parents from all seven countries reported that they and their children felt negative effects of the prolonged lack of access to in-person schooling.
These effects “included increases in domestic conflict, parental alcohol/drug use, and poor-quality homeschooling,” the researchers explain.
Some parents, from each country, also “reported that their child was unable to participate in homeschooling,” and the study authors suggest that this may have a significant negative impact on academic development.
“The majority of parents of children with [special educational needs] reported receiving no or insufficient support during homeschooling,” the researchers also note. Nevertheless, the study authors also found that some parents reported having positive experiences related to homeschooling.
Various MNT readers also emphasized how much they appreciate spending more quality time with their children due to local lockdowns and restrictions.
In some cases, our readers described mixed experiences. In an effort to improve the well-being of their children, some parents, particularly women, have had to leave work. This hints at the persistent gender-based inequities previously reported.
One reader told MNT: “My grandson, in second grade, struggled with online schooling. His mom, a teacher, immediately recognized his frustration and lack of focus. She has not worked this year in order to help him adjust. He is now excelling in his studies and well-being.”
Reaching for new coping strategies
A year into the pandemic, national and regional lockdowns and other preventive restrictions continue in Europe, the U.S., and some Asian countries, such as Japan.
For many, the world looks vastly different from how it seemed before March 2020.
A study published in January 2021 and covered by MNT suggests that, while stay at home orders may have initially had a negative impact on mental health, the effect may fade as people adjust to their situations.
Many MNT readers report that the restrictions that keep them from going to work, school, the gym, the cinema, and so on have actually brought them closer to their loved ones and helped them access previously untapped resources within themselves.
One reader from the U.S. told us that staying put has allowed her to build a closer connection with nature: “I have personally enjoyed being at home. My husband and I built paddocks for our chickens [and] doubled our garden space. […] And just now we’re digging a small pond to attract frogs and perhaps get ducks later this year.”
She also explained that seeing fewer people more often has actually strengthened their bond:
“[In] devoting 2 hours a week to one other person, only outdoors and at a distance, we have become far closer than in the several years we’ve known each other. I am very grateful for that.”
“Finally,” she added, “I have taken up a meditation practice again and find taking time throughout the day to be mindful and present really helped with politics, the climate emergency, and the virus.”
According to recent research, meditation may indeed be a helpful tool when adjusting to crises.
A paper published in May 2020 in the Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine argues that mindfulness and meditation can come in handy when dealing with negative emotional experiences, particularly “anxiety, overwhelm, and despair.”
“Meditation and mindfulness are useful skills that can help us to sit with our fears and our circumstances and to observe that, like our thoughts, this period in our lives, too, shall pass,” the author concludes.
Another MNT reader described how the pandemic has helped them and their partner find renewed pleasure in the little things and has strengthened their empathy and compassion.
“As two retired nurses, we have certainly become more patient and understanding of each other and our feelings. We have also become possible world champions at jigsaws! Although having shielded since March last year, we are in no hurry to have the current lockdown eased,” they said.
Another reader told MNT that the time spent at home allowed her to rediscover creative skills that have brought both joy and financial gain:
“I am a retired fashion designer and had studied art many years ago. Encouraged by my adult granddaughter, I started drawing again. It is amazing, as I never realized that I could become totally engrossed in sketching for pleasure! It has brought me peace and tranquility during this chaotic and difficult time. The real surprise is that I have continued to draw at home and have sold a number of my sketches. I have found a wonderful and productive pastime.”
Another reader, based in Spain, described how much they have appreciated the time spent with immediate family, despite initial concerns about the lockdown at the start of the pandemic.
“The first few months of [the pandemic] felt dramatic, and we were unsure about whether I would be able to join my partner for the birth of our second child, as the hospitals were restricting visitors, so we borrowed some money to use a birth center instead.”
The experience, they said, “turned out to be amazing, and we spent the rest of the lockdown nesting away with our new baby.”
This reader also reported having a renewed sense of community, as loved ones stayed in closer contact: “We are quite isolated here, even in normal times, but during this period, there was a lot of interaction with family and friends online. It felt like the people we knew were all checking up on each other.”
Other readers have spoken to us about health difficulties, depression, and isolation, an issue that has caused much grief over the past year.
In a perspective piece published in World Psychiatry in January 2021, Prof. Julianne Holt‐Lunstad, a psychologist at Brigham Young University, in Provo, Utah, argues that social isolation has become a pandemic in its own right, posing health threats that should not be ignored by policymakers or national authorities.
“In the midst of a global pandemic, the immediate dangers of a deadly novel virus are understandably being prioritized. However, social isolation and loneliness can result in both short- and long-term health effects that cannot be ignored. The lethal effects of social isolation and loneliness may be more immediate, in the case of suicide or domestic violence, or more long-term, in the case of disease-related deaths. International data from over 3.4 million people demonstrate the association of social isolation and loneliness with a significantly increased risk of death from all causes.”
A study, also from January 2021, that appeared in Humanities & Social Sciences Communications confirms Prof. Holt-Lunstad’s fears.
It reports in no uncertain terms that “The novel experience of mass physical distancing as a result of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic suggests that social isolation is a significant factor in the public health crisis.”
It also stresses that perceived social isolation is having a significant negative effect on the well-being of adults of all ages.
One MNT reader who moved to Spain shortly before the start of the pandemic described the difficulties of the ensuing experience. “The pandemic has meant that my life of ‘freedom’ in sunny Spain has not been what I had planned at all,” she said, explaining:
“I’ve not seen my family or friends for a year. I’ve spent [the] last 6 months alone. As an extrovert in a new country, with no connections here and no Spanish, it’s been hard. I feel fortunate to have my online business and a wonderful online community, or it would have affected my mental health a lot more.”
She added that the thought of missing important moments in her loved ones’ lives has been difficult to cope with.
“I hope very much that I’ll get to see my family soon. My sister is pregnant with her first child [and] I will miss her whole pregnancy. My other nieces are [aged] 1 and 3, and I didn’t expect to miss so much of their growth,” the reader told us.
Another reader, based in Brisbane, Australia, also described the toll of indefinite separation from family members in other countries, though he has been able to enjoy other aspects of life more or less as usual.
“[I’m] feeling really lucky that [COVID-19] has been controlled here in Australia. Life is pretty much like normal in Brisbane, and other than some scanning into public places and one small, 1-week lockdown, [it] has been [normal] since June last year,” he said.
Nevertheless, he explained, “There is a strange feeling of knowing that we won’t be able to travel back to [our country of origin] to visit family, and they won’t be able to come here to see us for another year or so, and even when international travel does open up again, it will not be the same for a long time.”
“All of a sudden, being this far away seems to be an eternity away, almost like being on another planet,” the reader told MNT.
A surge in depression and anxiety
Research into the extent of the pandemic’s impact on depression and anxiety in various populations worldwide is ongoing. So far, both data and personal anecdotes suggest that the negative effect is one to be reckoned with.
Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), for instance, cited in Nature, show that 11% of surveyed adults in the U.S. reported symptoms of anxiety or depression in 2019. In 2020, this increased to 42%.
One MNT reader, who said that they were 75 and had diabetes and heart failure, reported that their mental health has significantly deteriorated during the pandemic.
They told us that they now “need to start taking antidepressants” and are “unable to sleep more than 4 hours at a time.”
This experience is distressing, they said, explaining that they are “not living — just existing. There is a big difference.”
People all over the world have reported increases in anxiety related to fears about contracting SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
Such anxiety has spurred racist and xenophobic sentiments, as some people have come to associate the new coronavirus with the place where it was first identified: China.
A study published in the American Journal of Public Health in November 2020 notes that “Anti-Asian discrimination and assaults have increased significantly during the [COVID-19] pandemic, contributing to a ‘secondary contagion’ of racism.”
Other researchers, such as Dr. Isaac Yeboah Addo, of the University of New South Wales, in Sydney, Australia, agree that the term “pandemic” may best describe the increase in racism and discrimination over the past year.
In a paper published in Social Sciences & Humanities Open in October 2020, Dr. Addo explains just how complex this phenomenon is.
“Factors associated with the racial discrimination against noncitizens and people of color during this pandemic may be complex and may include postcolonial perception of racial superiority, fear of COVID-19 infection, ‘inflammatory’ comments by significant public figures, vengeance for fellow citizens who have experienced abuse elsewhere, and perception of differences in COVID-19 susceptibility due to differences in phenotypic physical features,” he writes.
An MNT reader based in Indonesia admitted that she has not been immune to anti-Asian sentiment, particularly in the first stages of the pandemic, when the fear of infection came as a shock to the system.
“The whole thing has been a crazy roller coaster,” she said. “I remember back in January meeting up with a friend who had just finished a teaching contract in Wuhan of all places! She told me how strangely they acted towards the ‘flu,’ how the whole class had to stay home for 4 days if one student showed symptoms.”
She then explained:
“As things started to progress, I started being racist and judging every Chinese person I came into contact with or walked past. I gave them a wide berth, held my breath … I could not wait to get away from Bali and to my workplace in remote Sulawesi.”
With the advent of COVID-19 vaccines and promising vaccine candidates, there is renewed hope that the world will open up in due course.
So far, 12 vaccines have gained authorization in at least one country, and COVID-19 vaccination programs have started in countries around the world.
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, an mRNA vaccine, is now authorized in 68 countries, including the U.S., the U.K., and all European Union countries.
The Moderna-NIAID vaccine, also an mRNA vaccine, has gained authorization in 40 countries, while the Oxford-AstraZeneca viral vector vaccine is now authorized in 74 countries.
In the U.K., official reports indicate that more than 2.8 million people have now received the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, while in the U.S., more than 62.4 million people have received at least one dose, the CDC report.
While many may be looking forward to returning to their pre-pandemic lives, this global crisis has brought a new awareness of existing problems that global and local decision-makers should prioritize.
Some of these issues, such as health inequities and domestic violence, have worsened during the pandemic, becoming more pressing than ever.
In a statement on March 11, 2021, Dr. Tedros noted that:
“Globally, 59% of deaths from COVID-19 are among men, but women have suffered disproportionately in many other ways. We have seen appalling increases in violence against women and reduced access to services for sexual and reproductive health. Employment losses have been high, even as women have borne a disproportionate burden of care for children and older people.”
“Women have been at the forefront of the [pandemic] response, making up about 70% of the health workforce globally. And yet, women only hold 25% of leadership roles in health,” he continued, explaining that this issue must be addressed going forward.
Dr. Tedros also mentioned a “growing global interest in the idea of a Pandemic Treaty,” referring to a recent call for an international treaty that would outline cohesive preparedness response measures in the event of a future pandemic.
“The world must learn lasting lessons from this pandemic,” Dr. Tedros stressed, exactly 1 year after he had declared the classification of the COVID-19 pandemic.
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