Welcome to the next weekly digest of stories about COVID-19 & Obesity for the 20th July.
We will be compiling stories from credible sources representing all regions of the world, including academic articles, position statements and mainstream news, amongst others.
If you have signed up to our newsletter, we will be sending this digest to your inbox every Monday during the current pandemic. If you have any stories from your country or discipline, please send through to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
COVID-19 has posed challenges to the production of and demand for food. The government of India responded quickly to these challenges by mitigating logistical issues, creating private partnerships, and deregulating prices of staple foods. Additionally, farmers are being prioritised though The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Ordinance, Agri-Infrastructure Fund, and Prime Minister Farmers Fund to increase the value of the agricultural sector. While these reforms are very promising, the next challenge is implementation.
Palestine has restarted lockdown as of early July, which is reducing food insecurity through economic shocks, issues in transitioning to the retail market, and limited access to agricultural inputs. In addition to COVID-19, food security in Palestine is affected by movement restrictions, environmental hazards, and conflict. Both overnutrition and nutrient deficiencies are common.
Research using over 7,000 households in South Africa indicates that hunger has doubled as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and its after effects, leaving those in need to forage for wild plants or contact overburdened charity organisations like The Gift of the Givers. Unemployment in particular is driving hunger – which is more likely to impact women and lower-income worker - and is also exacerbating existing food inequities. Major changes must be made to the South African food system.
Major disparities exist in which Americans are more likely to contract or die from COVID-19 by race. Housing inequality over generations has led to an overrepresentation of ethnic minorities in spaces where social distancing is difficult and income inequality means that people of colour are more likely to be essential workers- and more likely to be exposed to the virus. Additionally, food deserts around predominantly Black and Latinx neighbourhoods form a barrier to accessing healthy food. Native Americans in particular suffer from the limited funding and access to health services, leading to a high death rate from chronic conditions.
As policemen in Bhubaneswar and Cuttack are exposed to COVID-19 at high rates, the Commissionerate of Police has decided to take extreme measures. Police who have a BMI over 30 in three months will be enrolled in mandatory exercises or a fitness course, and those who are still considered to be living with obesity afterwards may be disciplined or forced to retire. The Commissionerate defends these actions as necessary considering the COVID-19 pandemic, but BMI is an imperfect measure of obesity, and the entire plan seems to consider obesity to be a personal choice that can be resolved simply through exercise instead of a disease with a myriad of contributing factors.
The UK Labour party is advocating for more “decisive” action on childhood obesity, especially as the lockdown has worsened obesity among this age group. While a report regarding childhood obesity has already been published, many recommendations have not been enacted. Labour is focusing on advertising restrictions and energy drink bans. However, food advertising groups claim that blanket restrictions are not effective enough and instead recommend more targeted exercise interventions.
Surgeons from the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery are advocating for the reclassification of metabolic and bariatric surgery from elective to “medically necessary time-sensitive” or “non-emergent” procedures, as these procedures are a safe and necessary option for weight management. This is especially urgent when the increased severity of COVID-19 in those living with overweight and obesity is taken into account.
Many anti-obesity campaigners in the UK have emphasized the necessity of banning advertisements for unhealthy foods before 9PM. However, the UK Advertising Association has pushed back on this ban, declaring UK guidelines for advertising are already stringent enough. They also claim that a recent impact assessment shows that this intervention would not be particularly effective.
Scientists at COVID-19 used data from Boston University and the COVID Tracking Project in an attempt to determine why people of colour have worse outcomes if they contract COVID-19 in the US. They found correlations between mortality rates and public transportation use. However, they did not see a correlation between obesity, smoking, diabetes, or poverty.
A literature review done by scientists at both Jude Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and the University of Tennessee Health Science Centre found that people with metabolic syndrome were significantly more likely to experience a severe course of disease form viral infections, more recent studies suggesting that the this includes COVID-19. Other studies have linked obesity to flu severity, virus shedding though exhalation, and a longer period of contagiousness. Type 2 diabetes has been linked to a higher chance of overactivity of the immune system (as well as obesity), although concerns about some medications worsening the course of COVID-19 were unfounded. The American Society of Microbiology will continue to promote the study of microbiology by curating the best articles.
Many Canadians suffered from food insecurity before the pandemic, and the economic downturn in the aftermath of lockdown has worsened the issue. Minority and low-income areas have higher rates of both COVID cases and food insecurity, which is no accident. To fix food insecurity, decent paying and stable jobs, social safety nets, and affordable housing and care for all are essential to first fix poverty and racial inequities.
Lockdown in Bangladesh partnered with a recent cyclone have caused massive unemployment, directly leading to increased food insecurity, especially in the city of Mongla. Household surveys indicate that 84% had no savings and 66% spend over half of their income to feed themselves and their families. While food parcels have been distributed to some, not all in need have been able to access aid and have therefore needed to reduce the nutrition in their diets, despite physical availability of food.
Researchers at the Alma Mater Studiorum University of Bologna observed a correlation between COVID-19 severity, death and obesity (defined as BMI over 30) after adjusting for age, sex, and other chronic diseases. As a result, they recommend that COVID-19 risk guidelines be revised to include any person living with obesity, instead of just severe obesity.
A report from Oxfam suggests that COVID-19 will dramatically increase world hunger, but food companies are still making unconscionable levels of profit through possible price increases. As a result, they call upon governments to fix broken food chains and distribute food to the most vulnerable, especially in COVID-19 hotspots.
The European Union has chosen to make major changes to the European food system in order to build resilience, biodiversity and sustainability. However, many (including the author) are worried that this could raise food prices and shift costs to farmers in a time of economic downturn.
This policy brief, written by the UNESCO Chair on Food, Biodiversity, and Sustainability Studies (who is also a member of the Building Back Better Post-COVID-19 Task Force), highlights the importance of proper nutrition and resilience within the Canadian food system. They describe how government, infrastructure on the regional scale, healthy food environments, sustainable and resilient food systems, and food sovereignty for Indigenous tribes should be in order to limit the impact of further shocks. Existing programmes that fall within these categories are mentioned.
Pre-existing health conditions like obesity put people at higher risk for a more severe course of disease with COVID-19. People from minority ethnic groups are also at higher risk, which experts attribute to health inequity caused by systemic racism. Additionally, historical discrimination against people of colour in housing markets leads to increased exposure to air pollution among these groups, which is in itself considered a risk factor.
Charities are encouraging the UK government to restrict unhealthy food advertising before 9PM as part of the plan to curb the obesity epidemic. Many leaders of charity organisations are concerned that excluding this from policy would undermine the effectiveness of all policies. This is particularly important due to the correlations between COVID-19 severity and obesity.
For almost 20 years, Medicare has prohibited coverage of anti-obesity medications and limited that of behavioural therapy. Now, two senators have co-sponsored the Treat and Reduce Obesity Act to include these therapies, reintroducing the bill in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr Matthew Hutter of Harvard Medical School and the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery states that obesity is a disease and advocates the use of safe, effective medication.
This piece analyses the connections between weight stigma and police violence against Black Americans. Police officers and representatives have defended police violence by portraying the victim as dangerous due to their size and blaming underlying conditions, rather than officer actions, for deaths. Recently, a Black man was denied release from prison (prisoners are being paroled to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in close quarters) over the argument that his obesity stemmed entirely from his own choices and not the many socioeconomic causes of obesity.
I Hagan Famalåo'an Guåhan, Inc, a woman’s organisation located in Guam distributed gardening kits to increase food security and sovereignty in the region in partnership with the government of the island. Demand so high that all kits were distributed, forcing the organisation to cancel a planned event due to lack of supplies.
As indicated in the Food and Agriculture Organisation report, food insecurity is increasing globally as a direct result of the pandemic. Women and those in developing countries are particularly vulnerable. Action must be taken to restore the economy and provide agricultural workers with the inputs and labour necessary to grow enough food.
Australia uses a Health Star Rating system to indicate how healthy food products are. This is currently being revised despite the pandemic and will increase the impact of sugar and salt on the health ratings. Companies are not currently required to display the health ratings on their products, but experts recommend the ratings become mandatory if less than 70% display health ratings.
As researchers link obesity to more severe cases of COVID-19, weight management has become increasingly important, but many aspects of the pandemic have hindered obesity treatment. A recent trial from Northwestern Medicine of an online behavioural modification programme found it to be highly successful and much cheaper than traditional services. 562 participants were enrolled in the study.
The American College of Sports Medicine published the annual ranking of US cities by fitness level, which has some correlations with COVID-19 deaths (although other factors, such as density and use of public transportation, also play a role). City leaders need to implement more exercise programs and fund safe recreational spaces. Statistics in all cities improved from last year. Viewing data by cities only can highlight health disparities, as suburbs may artificially improve rankings.
Researchers compared measures of health in both the United States and United Kingdom. Many more Americans have less healthy diets and more chronic conditions. Disparities between countries were more pronounced for residents in lower income brackets.
The percent of undernourished Indians has decreased from over 20% to only 14%, according to a report from the Food and Agriculture Organisation. However, obesity is growing both in India and globally, although effective programs to increase nutrition in diets have been established in both urban and rural areas. COVID-19 will further disrupt access to healthy food.
New Orleans has developed an emergency food assistance program in conjunction with the Federal Emergency Management Program to deliver food directly to residents at risk from COVID-19. Meals will be nutritious and reduce food insecurity. In addition, the programme has provided a few hundred needed jobs in the area.
COVID-19 has disrupted the economy, leading to unemployment, less money for food, and therefore food insecurity for many. In addition, it has affected the production of food, consumer behaviour surrounding food purchasing, and food prices. A second wave could exacerbate all of these conditions, so policymakers need to be aware of these.
The inability of food chains to keep up with panic-buying or easily transition away from catering in the UK highlights the need for increased resilience of the food system. Outbreaks of COVID-19 also occurred in some food processing plants. Finally, policy will have to focus on both short- and long-term effects of COVID-19.
The pandemic has exacerbated existing levels of childhood food insecurity within the United Kingdom. The Children’s Right2Food campaign, promoted by British actress Emma Thompson, have created a charter (recently updated to account for the coronavirus) to protect children’s right to food. This would set up a new commission led by young people to plan for emergencies, continue holiday provision after the crisis ends, increase the number of children who qualify for free meals at school, increase the amount of the allowance to promote healthy eating, provide free tap water in schools, place regulations on the advertising of unhealthy products, make nutritious food more affordable, and change the name of the school meal programme. Additionally, the group has published a report and launched a podcast.
Many farmers in the Indian state of Kerala decided to diversify their crops by growing vegetables in preparation for food shortages, which was extremely successful. The government is encouraging people in the region to grow crop for themselves and their families through several government organizations, citing both increased food security and positive psychological effects.
In response to food insecurity caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the government of Jamaica has launched a programme to buy extra produce from farmers, preventing massive economic losses across the sector. Agricultural workers were hit especially hard due to the cessation of tourism and subsequent lowered demand in these markets. The government is using this and other similar initiatives to protect livestock and poultry.
Western nations will soon transition from focus on short-term emergency responses to the COVID-19 crisis towards mitigating the long-term effects. The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World annual report from the Food and Agriculture Organization, set to be polished soon, will discuss inequality in food access across the world, promote sustainability, and prevent malnutrition in all its forms. The report will focus specifically on obesity.
In the first six months of this year, approximately 2,500 have been hospitalised with malnutrition in the UK, which is almost double that of 2019. Food bank usage has increased dramatically in the last few years, and loss of income due to economic disruptions from COVID-19 is worsening access to healthy, nutritious foods.
The UK has launched a scheme to encourage residents to eat at restaurants more often, which may boost the economy, but includes fast-food restaurants. This runs contrary to Boris Johnson’s recent focus on obesity prevention, with obesity organisations fearing that it will essentially act as a promotion for unhealthy foods. Instead, they feel as though the government should have invested in healthy eating initiatives, as the second wave of COVID-19 is likely coming in the fall.
Obesity was a worldwide pandemic long before COVID-19. When considering European countries, Malta places second in obesity rates. This article interviews several health practitioners, one of which considers the designation of obesity as a disease to improve awareness but personally believes that this limits focus on lifestyle changes, social and economic factors that lead to obesity, and the impact of weight stigma on those living with obesity.
Despite evidence linking obesity to worse outcomes from COVID-19 and the UK government’s subsequent focus on anti-obesity initiatives, some are wondering if other factors may affect death rate. Some countries with high obesity rates have managed to avert high death rates through early border closures (New Zealand) and others have been lucky with lower death rates than expected (India). In addition, it is likely that the socioeconomic factors that often influence obesity status may also relate to an individual’s likelihood of contracting SARS-CoV-2.
Children in the UK are usually measured by school nurses and referred to weight management services twice in their academic career. This has been paused as a result of the pandemic, and some are afraid that it may not be prioritized in the fall, despite decreases in activity and increased consumption of unhealthy foods as the result of lockdowns. Some recommend that the programme be expanded so that children can be weighed six months after the pandemic and then yearly after that.
Years of systemic racism and disinvestment has left food deserts surrounding Native American Reservations. Food shortages and increasing unemployment due to COVID-19 is exacerbating the problem, increasing enrolment in government programmes. Experts note that different tribes have different community needs, but support sending mobile grocery stores into reservations.
The plans in the UK Government to enact anti-obesity measures are now considered urgent, as the second wave of COVID-19 is projected to come in the fall. Officials describe the immediate plans as focused on nutrition, using both the National Health Service and some commercial weight-management organisations. Long-term plans will centre around physical activity.
Agricultural departments are encouraging urban farming and community gardening in some areas of the Philippines. Adequate nutrition is of particular concern as a result of its boost to immune function in light of the COVID-19.
A report by the United Nations published recently indicates that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a major setback towards eliminating world hunger. In addition to hunger, undernutrition (sufficient calories but lack of adequate nutrients) will affect many, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia. Nutritionally sound diets cost almost five times as much as a simply starch-based diet.