BLOG | COVID-19 and obesity: listening to our members

NewsBLOG | COVID-19 and obesity: listening to our members

World Obesity’s response to COVID-19

The emerging evidence is now clear: the link between obesity and COVID-19 cannot be ignored. Since the start of the pandemic, World Obesity has been compiling the latest research and analysis in our policy dossier, and summarising the global situation in our statements.

"Obesity-related conditions seem to worsen the effect of COVID-19; indeed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that people with heart disease and diabetes are at higher risk of COVID-19 complications." World Obesity Scientific Statement August 2020

The pandemic and the measures to help curb COVID-19 are likely to have a significant impact not only on people living with obesity but also on the health of the general population. As highlighted in our latest policy statement, the first phase of the pandemic showed:

  • Strained food systems and supply chains due to concerns of food shortages
  • A change in people’s diets due to lockdowns around the world, self-isolation and quarantine measures, and heightened food insecurity amongst the most vulnerable groups
  • As with many pre-existing health conditions, we are witnessing delays in treatment and support for people living with obesity
  • An impact on mental health due to the seriousness of the emerging situation and challenges faced from isolation, reduced physical activity, social engagement and employment changes
  • A rise in the exposure to opportunistic marketing of unhealthy commodities and products high in fat, sugar and salt

As COVID-19 continues to threaten vulnerable populations, including people living with obesity, we asked our global membership to share their experiences and views on government responses.

We received over 50 responses from 40 countries in all regions of the world!

Listening to our membership

While the experience of respondents varied around the world, we heard a number of key trends emerging:

  1. Despite the evidence, most national governments have not included obesity in their national COVID response plans.
  • Only 11 respondents reported that their government had recognised the link between obesity and COVID-19.
  • Less than 10% of members that participated in our survey think their government has done enough to recognise the link between obesity and COVID-19 as part of its COVID-19 response.
  • Only 15% think their government has done enough to protect and support people living with obesity as part of its COVID-19 response.

“Evidence of the links between obesity and worse health outcomes from COVID-19 appear to be ignored.” – England  

“WHO does not explicitly include obesity in its guidance to countries, and this is part of the reason national governments do not prioritise it, even though it has been demonstrated to be one of the most serious drivers of COVID complications.”  - World Obesity Member

  1. People living with obesity have experienced disruption to weight management and other services with support groups, clinics and bariatric surgeries cancelled.

“Only essential services remain during pandemic. Obesity was not included.”- Spain

“I was due to start a weight loss management program, which had to be suspended as it involved group exercise. Care for other chronic conditions is also on hold which can impact obesity (& does in my case)”- England  

  1. Many members fear that obesity will be soon forgotten, with little or none action taken.

“It is a disaster… They [the government] need to start policies right now to support and stop obesity’s progression. Recognising the impact of obesity on public health would be the first step” – Canada

“I was hoping for more restrictions on takeaway outlets close to schools, improving the quality of the school food, hopefully investment in the professionals empowering the communities to improve their diets, however this may only partially happen” – England

When asked what they expected the greatest challenges for obesity in their country over the coming months, members reported: (i) lack of understanding of adult and childhood obesity in the health system; (ii) reduced opportunities for physical activity; and (iii) Increased vulnerability of people living with obesity as key concerns.

From crisis to opportunity

Despite the negative experiences and fears expressed, there are signs of hope that COVID-19 may lead to a new era for obesity awareness, prevention and treatment. For example, in the UK the Prime Minister has set out a new strategy directly linked to the increased risks of COVID-19 for people living with obesity.

Governments around the world facing the collision of obesity and COVID-19 pandemics should be inspired by Boris Johnson’s leadership, but should seek to implement a more comprehensive approach.

World Obesity is working with its members to help transform this moment of crisis into a potential opportunity for action on obesity.

Building on the commitments set out in the World Obesity Day 2020 ROOTS declaration, we will be calling for obesity to be recognised as a disease in its own right, and included in national health plans alongside diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular diseases. Commitments to addressing childhood obesity should also be prioritised. There is an urgent need for health systems to be better equipped to treat obesity, for health care professionals to have access to obesity training and for strong populations policies such as front-of-pack labelling and sugar-sweetened beverage taxes to be implemented more widely.

However, it is also important to recognise that obesity is a multifactorial, complex disease, and the root causes run much deeper - they can be genetic, psychological, sociocultural, economic and environmental. As a result of COVID-19, our lifestyle and surrounding environments have drastically changed. ‘Building back better’ from the COVID-19 crisis will require transformative policy approaches to tackle the interrelated pandemics of obesity, COVID-19, but also the underlying social, economic and racial inequities that must be addressed to ensure #HealthForAll and a #HealthyRecovery.

Coming soon…

In our upcoming briefing paper on obesity and COVID-19, we will build on our members’ insights and review the policy implications of existing evidence in the current context.

Watch this space!