A “mass disability event” is already under way at a scale “truly hard to imagine” as one expert warns thousands of Aussies may be forced out of work.
A Pulitzer Prize winner has warned a “mass disability event” is already under way, as numbers of those suffering long-term symptoms after having Covid continue to grow.
And the growing crisis could put more pressure on an already struggling Australian health system, as well as see thousands of people forced to leave their jobs for health reasons.
Ed Yong, a science writer at The Atlantic, has been chronicling symptoms of sufferers post-Covid since the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, when the term “long Covid” was yet to be coined.
At the time, tens of thousands of people across the world, known as “long-haulers”, began reporting debilitating symptoms even after they recovered from their initial illness.
“I first wrote about them in early June,” Yong wrote in August 2020.
“Since then, I’ve received hundreds of messages from people who have been suffering for months – alone, unheard and pommeled by unrelenting and unpredictable symptoms.”
The Washington-based journalist’s collection of work on long Covid in 2020 earned him the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting.
‘Mass disability event’
Two years since Yong began reporting on long Covid, he told news.com.au he is still receiving emails “from people who’ve been dealing with symptoms since near the start of the pandemic, and others who’ve started down that path more recently”.
He’s warned that the huge number of infections seen by Omicron and its predecessors will see millions of people around the world affected by a “mass disability event”.
“Even if you take the most conservative estimates for the proportion of people with Covid who develop long-term symptoms, that still translates to tens of millions of people worldwide,” he said.
“Some of those people will recover, but others will be disabled for the foreseeable future.
“The scale of such a mass disability event is truly hard to imagine, and it is appalling that we are forced to imagine it because two years on, long Covid still isn’t being counted, and many long-haulers are still being ignored.”
Yong likened long Covid to other “marginalised” diseases.
“The piece I want to highlight, and that I think a lot of people still miss, is that long Covid has important similarities to ME/CFS, dysautonomia and other chronic, complex, marginalised conditions.
“There aren’t many scientists who study these conditions but they do exist, and their work means that we’re not starting from scratch when it comes to understanding long Covid.
“Even many scientists are unaware of this, and are thus reinventing the wheel.”
More than 200 symptoms
Long Covid has more than 200 different symptoms across 10 organ systems associated with it, according to research conducted in Canada late last year.
The most common include ongoing debilitating fatigue, brain fog, shortness of breath, pain, sleep disturbances, anxiety and depression.
Other symptoms include muscle weakness and joint pain, stomach and intestinal symptoms such as diarrhoea, psychological effects like mood swings, and sensory symptoms such as changes to smell or taste.
Individuals with the post Covid-19 condition may also have impaired cognitive and physical functional status, including limitations in the ability to perform daily activities such as dressing or bathing, reduced ability to care for family members or dependants, difficulty returning to work and increased health care use.
Insane numbers in Australia
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has reported that about one in four cases experience symptoms of long Covid for at least a month, and one in 10 experience symptoms lasting beyond 12 weeks.
In Australia, a study by associate professor of health systems financing and organisation at Deakin University Martin Hensher examined the 2021 Delta outbreaks in Victoria and NSW where nearly 140,000 people had already been infected.
“It is clear that a number of people developed long Covid [in Australia] following the first wave,” he told news.com.au.
“People start to feel better and then often overdo it and relapse.”
Before Omicron, he predicted the combined outbreaks had led to up to 20,000 Australians having developed long Covid.
Along with a piece for The Conversation, Associate Professor Hensher calculated that limited relaxation of public health measures “could generate 10,000 to 34,000 long Covid cases” while a complete relaxation of public health measures “could lead to 60,000 to 133,000 long Covid cases”.
Of that number, 2000 to 11,000 people might still be sick a year after their initial infection.
But those are underestimates in the current climate.
Associate Professor Hensher warned that with the current outbreak in Australia, it was “foolish” to think there wouldn’t be cases of long Covid.
“[It’s] possible that Omicron might behave similarly to earlier variants in terms of long Covid, because remember, with Delta and the original strain, from what we understand with long Covid, is that it’s entirely possible for people with quite mild infections to go on to develop long Covid.
“I think it would be foolish to assume that we won’t get significant long Covid cases coming out of this,” he said.
“There’s just so many people getting sick that that kind of arithmetic is going to crunch through.”
Australia not ready
Associate Professor Hensher warned Australia is already struggling under the pressure of the recent Omicron outbreak and faces further disruption due to long Covid.
“We are talking about hundreds of thousands of people [potentially affected], but they’ll be presenting themselves to the health system which is already trying to tread water and not go under from the impact of the Covid wave itself,” he told news.com.au.
“The problem with long Covid is these are people who would otherwise not have been ill, so there is a whole new set of demand for health care for people who really wouldn’t have been needing health care at a point when the system is under incredible strain or trying to recover from this incredibly stressful period we’re going through at the moment
“It’s going to be really difficult and I think we’ll probably start to see stories of frustration of people who are not getting real support and left to fend for themselves, but the problem is we’ll now see them in potentially quite big numbers.
“I think you will see more people forced to withdraw from the labour market for health reasons.
“You’ll see people who can’t go back to work
“Post Omicron, if we start to see larger numbers of people with long Covid, you will see people forced to drop out of the labour market.
“It will be yet another pressure on wages and the labour force and it will also add pressure on government spending because you will have people who will need welfare or disability benefits.”
What does the Government say?
The Department of Health told news.com.au: “Synthesising and interpreting data on long Covid will require ongoing collaboration between academia and governments to inform decision-making at all levels.
“The Australian Government is actively monitoring the emerging research on long Covid.”
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