And now for the aftershock
Evidence is mounting that long covid is a real threat to global health
As the world enters the second year of the pandemic, two crises are unfolding. The more urgent and visible one is in poor countries like India, where a surge of covid-19 cases is threatening to overwhelm the state. India is recording more than 350,000 cases a day, and many more than that are thought to be going undetected. The suffering is grievous. Oxygen supplies at Indian hospitals are running far short of what is needed, and crematoriums are overwhelmed.
The other crisis is more subtle. This is long covid, which is becoming apparent in rich countries like America, Britain and Israel that have largely vaccinated their way out of the pandemic, but which will affect poor ones, too. Post-covid syndrome, to give it its formal name, is a set of symptoms affecting any part of the body that persist for at least three months after a bout of covid-19. Three stand out: breathlessness, fatigue and “brain fog”. In Britain three in every five people with long covid say their usual activities are somewhat limited, and one in five says they are limited “a lot”—which often means being unable to do even a part-time, desk-based job.
The numbers are chilling. Half a million people in Britain have had long covid for more than six months. Their chances of full recovery are probably slim. The vast majority are in their working-age prime. At the last count (which does not fully take in the country’s second wave) 1.1% of Britain’s population had had long covid for at least three months—a group that includes 1.5% of those of working age. About 15% of Britain’s population had been infected by then. Applying this rate to global covid-19 cases, numbering an estimated 1.2bn so far, suggests that more than 80m people may already have long covid.
The costs of the condition have yet to be tallied, but they will be huge. Britain’s National Institute for Health Research found that, in 80% of sufferers, the illness affected the ability to work. Over a third said it had weighed on their finances.