Commentary

Elayne Clift: The other long-haul Covid

Note: This story is more than a week old. Given how quickly the Covid-19 pandemic is evolving, we recommend that you read our latest coverage here.

This commentary is written by Elayne Clift, who writes from Brattleboro.

As the new Covid booster becomes available, it’s good to see eligible people lining up to receive it. In addition to providing a new layer of protection against the virus, the vaccine is a reminder that the Covid pandemic is not over, despite changes in safety protocols that contribute to continued resistance to preventive behavior change. More frequently now, people are unmasked in places that leave us vulnerable to infection and if we aren’t careful, we could see a resurgence of Covid that pulls us back into severe illness and isolation.

Still, new data regarding Covid-19 incidence, prevalence and mortality are encouraging. 

What’s not encouraging is the lack of recognition, acknowledgment and planning among professionals, politicians and the public regarding another form of long-haul Covid: the long-term changes it will inevitably make in our lives. Sadly, we aren’t addressing these changes, which became obvious when I researched the future impacts of Covid. With two exceptions, my search failed to identify any scientific or lay articles written later than 2021. Almost every source in my Google search discussed the effects of Covid on culture, society, and human experience during the worst of the pandemic, but failed to explore future issues.

The articles I read regarding the virus that robbed us of so much in our lives for over two years never mentioned the fact that our world could be forever changed in multiple ways that we haven’t recognized or fully experienced yet because of the pandemic’s long-term effects — not on our bodies but in our cultures and societies. But the fact is that Covid will affect the way we live for a long time, possibly forever, across a variety of sectors.

One of those sectors is health care. It’s obvious that we are already in trouble there. Just think about how unprepared for an epidemic we were when Covid struck, despite years of warning from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control that a global pandemic was long overdue. Note how unprepared we were for Monkeypox or the re-emergence of polio, and Covid mutations or other pandemics are bound to occur. Add to that massive attrition of health care providers and workers due to burnout, abusive behavior and more. Patients now endure longer waits than ever for diagnosis and treatment, telemedicine (widely touted by medical sources) has usurped interpersonal communication with providers, and we continue to have a two-tiered system based on profit motives and insurance-driven policies.

In addition, we are now facing a national mental health epidemic that includes shocking suicide statistics, especially among teenagers, deadly self-medication with opiates, growing reports of depression and anxiety due to prolonged isolation, work and career challenges and changes, economic worries, and related factors. All while we are woefully unprepared to support and care for the growth in numbers of people of all ages with mental health needs.

Education is another sector that will be changed in ways both predictable and troubling as social and cultural long-haul Covid becomes clear. As UNICEF noted presciently in a 2020 report on how Covid was already changing the world, the virus “is already altering the lives of children, especially the most impoverished, to a catastrophic extent. Children already left behind will likely bear the brunt of the pandemic’s impact, whether through missing out on life-saving vaccinations, increased risk of violence, or interrupted education.” Add to that teacher shortages, lack of access to digital learning and the challenge of making up for lost learning over two years.

An article published in 2021, “The lingering effects of unfinished learning,“ by multiple authors stated that we are facing “the most challenging (time) for educators and students in our nation’s history.” Their research showed that “the impact of the pandemic on K-12 student learning was significant, leaving students on average five months behind in mathematics and four months behind in reading by the end of (2021). The pandemic widened pre-existing opportunity and achievement gaps, hitting historically disadvantaged students hardest.”  

Clearly, these gaps have economic implications as well as connections to future challenges in employment, mental health and quality of life, as the authors note. “The fallout from the pandemic threatens to depress (the younger) generation’s prospects and constrict their opportunities far into adulthood.” They call upon local, state and federal leaders to address this reality, stating that “the scope of action is already clear” and includes “reimagining education systems for the long term.” That, of course, has massive political implications.

As UNICEF said in its “Statistical Perspective, Volume I,” issued in 2020, “Covid-19 has turned the world upside down. Everything has been impacted. How we live and interact with each other, how we work and communicate, how we move and travel. Every aspect of our lives has been affected. Decisions we make now and in (the future) will be some of the most important made in generations. They will affect people around the world for years to come.”

The connections across sectors following a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic and the challenges they present are becoming clear and urgent, as these examples make clear. The question is do we have the political will to address these challenges in appropriate, timely and strategic ways as we face an uncertain and potentially difficult future? We must ask ourselves what will happen if not.


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