Lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic: prevention measures part 2

Lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic: prevention measures part 2

Interventions such as mask-wearing, frequent hand washing and social distancing), as well as lockdowns are among the most effective measures to reduce infection rates during a pandemic. However social distancing can also have negative consequences.

We are only starting to learn about the wide-ranging long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, both for individuals who are still suffering from health impairment due to Long COVID or psychological consequences of the pandemic and for the economy. While dealing with these consequences it is also worth taking a look back to evaluate protection mechanisms that were implemented during the pandemic. In a previous blog, the effectiveness of mask protection was discussed. Following up on prevention measures, this blog will address the benefits of social distancing for infection prevention and the associated harms due to isolation.

Social distancing can have substantial negative consequences

Social distancing, including lockdowns, school closures and restrictions on gatherings, has been key in controlling COVID-19 by breaking the transmission chain. But this measure also had critical drawbacks. Indeed, social distancing saved many lives by preventing millions of SARS-CoV-2 infections, but this might have come at a high cost. Especially for vulnerable populations, such as older people, disabled individuals, gender and sexual minorities, low-income groups, migrant workers, children and those at risk of domestic violence the negative consequences are substantial.

A major review of 265 studies showed that these groups faced disproportionately negative impacts from social distancing measures. The isolation led to mental distress from prolonged loneliness and caused unemployment, income loss, food insecurity, increased inequality and limited access to social support and healthcare services for many people. In future scenarios, both these negative consequences and the potentially detrimental effects of post-acute disease conditions like Long COVID have to be taken in consideration and evaluated carefully.

The evidence on the effectiveness of governmental support measures against disparities through social distancing is limited.

Governments have tried to address these challenges using measures like technology, telehealth services, home-based learning and creating support systems for access to necessities and financial support. However, the available support measures vary a lot between countries and might not be equally helpful to people of all ages and socioeconomic situation. Several countries had measures specifically targeting these vulnerable groups. Evidence of the effectiveness of these measures has been limited. Further research might help understand and minimize the long-term socio-economic disparities caused by social distancing measures.

In long-term care facilities it is especially challenging to find a good balance between protection, physical activity and social interaction.

Especially in long-term care facilities COVID-19 safety measures, including lockdowns, had both upsides and downsides. They can protect people, but can also lead to loneliness, stress and decreased physical activity, which can harm health. A lack of movement can cause a decline in mental and physical health and increase the risk of chronic and degenerative diseases. In contrast, staying active can improve well-being, mobility, and social interaction, and thereby reduce loneliness.

In long-term care facilities, these measures had mixed effects. While they kept COVID-19 at bay, they also restricted visitors and limited physical activities, leading to a sedentary lifestyle that can affect health negatively. Therefore, care in these facilities aimed at encouraging activity and self-sufficiency, rather than just protective care, even with the use of digital tools like video communication. It is important to find a good balance between protection from external influences and ensuring stable social interaction.