Report exposes pandemic's indirect impacts

·3-min read

Restrictions designed to preserve the health of Australians saw millions of them feed unhealthy habits and turn to their vices to cope, new research from the national health data agency suggests.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare on Friday released a report - based on several data sources and surveys - exploring the direct and indirect effects of the first year of the pandemic on Australians' health.

While the report found the country had fared comparatively well when it came to the direct impacts of the virus, the wellbeing of many Australians had suffered thanks to its indirect consequences.

During the country's initial lockdown between April and June in 2020, one in five people who drink alcohol noticed they were reaching for the bottle more, while a similar proportion of smokers and illicit drug users also upped their consumption.

While some saw the time as an opportunity to exercise more, a similar share of Australians decreased their physical activity.

One in four people had increased how often they indulged in snack foods, and more than half - 58 per cent - reported they'd been spending more time on their screens.

The initial impacts of the pandemic also appeared to have increased levels of psychological distress, particularly for adults aged 18-45, although suicide rates remained steady.

But it wasn't all bad news.

Some 41 per cent of people reported they had increased their household chores and projects, although their inspiration was short lived. Two months later it had almost halved, to 25 per cent.

Emergency department presentations were lower, and the road toll during March and April was down on the five-year average by five per cent and 25 per cent respectively.

There was, however, a big increase in the number of ED presentations for do-it-yourself injuries, likely from many of those undertaking home projects.

The burden of the virus - determined by the number of healthy years of life Australians who contracted COVID-19 may have lost - also proved to be far less than other leading diseases.

"There were just over 8400 disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) lost in 2020 from COVID-19 in Australia," AIHW spokesperson Dr. Lynelle Moon said.

"By comparison, coronary heart disease was responsible for around 312,000 DALYs and respiratory infections for 80,500 DALYs in 2018.

"COVID-19 would rank about 135th out of 219 diseases in terms of total burden of disease."

However, hordes of Australians put off seeking healthcare, with some services seeing considerable reductions.

There were 145,000 fewer mammograms through BreastScreen Australian between January and June 2020 compared to the same period in 2019, and only a boost of 12,000 when restrictions ended.

Similarly, the decline in optometry appointments at the height of the initial restrictions was so sharp the number of services for the entirety of 2020 was eight per cent lower than in 2019.

The pandemic also further exposed inequality.

People living in the lowest socio-economic areas were 2.6 times more like to die with COVID-19 than those from the highest socio-economic areas, and in April one in five people in the labour force were either unemployed or underemployed.

But it all could have been much worse, the report concluded.

The key aim of lockdowns - to prevent hospitals becoming overwhelmed with COVID cases - was achieved.

"If Australia had experienced the same crude case and death rates as Canada, Sweden or the United Kingdom, by early April 2021 there would have been between 680,000 and 2 million cases instead of the 29,000 that did occur, and between 16,000 and 48,000 deaths, between 15 and 46 times the number of deaths," Dr Moon said.

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