So much of the conversation around how to beat Covid-19 has focused on the Holy Grail of a vaccine.
This is obviously of utmost importance. But to beat coronavirus, as well as prepare for the next pandemic, we need a new definition of health — one that can strengthen our natural immunity and save thousands of lives.
Despite lockdowns, social distancing, face masks and drug treatments, more than 600,000 people have died worldwide from Covid-19. Many of those lives could have been saved if those individuals had been supported in building their bodies’ natural resilience, rather than conditioned to lead unhealthy lives and then wait for the doctor to prescribe a treatment once the damage is done.
In the western world in particular, health equals pills, injections, and doctors. But healthy eating, exercise, and family and social support are just as critical to health — and they’re issues that should be communicated to the world population by doctors, not Instagram influencers.
Campaigns like the UK government’s new obesity strategy are too little, too late. The World Health Organisation should be as keen to get people into gyms as vaccination centres.
If it were, this pandemic would be far less deadly. One study from April showed that 90 per cent of coronavirus victims had underlying conditions, such as heart and respiratory disease. Stopping smoking and starting exercising may be the “Covid cure” available to all, right now.
In England, over 30 per cent of the total hospital deaths have occurred in patients who had type II diabetes, a disease associated with poor diet, obesity, and inactivity. Diabetes sufferers are on average 12 times more likely to die from Covid-19 once they become infected.
An estimated 1.7 billion people suffer from conditions that predispose them to suffer more acutely from Covid-19. That’s almost a quarter of the global population who could be made less vulnerable to the disease’s effects through simple holistic health policies.
Exercise and weight loss is one obvious way to build “immunity” against Covid’s worst symptoms. Another is to strengthen our immune systems through a variety of healthy nutrients, enough sleep, and drinking and smoking less.
Stress reduction is also an important factor. More stress means a weaker immune system. The constant stream of worst-case scenario projections and daily death tolls (the likes of which are not run by news channels even at times of war), as well as lockdown isolation and depression, must have come at a huge immune cost.
There has, sadly, been very little focus on these crucial risk areas, or on ways to reduce the risk of Covid-19 that don’t rely on a vaccine. The global attitude to health is failing us all by divorcing lifestyle and other health factors from the medical system. The system is built on cures (and the pharmaceutical companies that provide them) rather than prevention.
There’s both more money and more political support for selling drug treatments than gym memberships. In a truly health-conscious society, both would be seen as essential public goods. The NHS advises people to visit gyms but won’t pay for gym membership (although it will now prescribe a limited number of bikes). It does however, spend billions on the problems caused by lack of exercise.
Holistic health is true health — if only health authorities realised it. The term has unfortunate connotations, because of some who piggyback off it in order to sell ineffective or fraudulent products on social media. But it is a scientific approach taking a fuller picture of a patient’s health — including physical wellbeing, mental health, and lifestyle factors. It means not siloing the body into convenient categories, as our medical system often does, but caring for patients in the round.
Some developing countries with more early-stage health infrastructures seem to be embracing the holistic approach more than wealthier nations. Next month at the Dhaka Forum I will be speaking about this approach alongside representatives of the UN, the Gates Foundation, former Downing Street advisers and ministers. I am not aware of anything comparable in London or Washington. This is a missed opportunity.
Healthy people are usually healthy not because they take the most medicines, but because they make lifestyle choices that reduce their risk of needing medicines in the first place. The race for a vaccine is important — but so is the race from couch to 5k, or from the confectionary aisle to the sugar-free one.
Main image credit: Getty