It has been seven months since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on public and social health have begun to come to light. Recent and ongoing studies by University of Toronto researchers examine the effects of COVID-19 on the elderly, students, and marginalized communities.
Since March, it has become increasingly apparent that the most vulnerable societies are carrying the burden of this virus. The effects of the pandemic continually oppress those facing socio-economic hardship, disease, and systemic racism. The need for physical distance is weighed against the potential consequences on mental health and quality of life, especially in older adults.
Effects of physical distancing on the mental health of the elderly
Older adults are widely recognized as the most susceptible age group to COVID-19, with the highest mortality rate. As of May, over 80 percent of COVID-19-related deaths in Canada were from long-term care homes, according to a report by the Canadian Institute for Health Information. As such, physical distancing is essential to this demographic, but the consequences on the mental health of the elderly are largely unexplored.
An editorial co-authored by Dr. Charlene Chu, Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto School of Nursing and colleagues at McMaster University, Grand River Hospital and St. Louis. Marys Hospital, raises concerns about the impact of physical distance on autonomy, quality of life, and mental health of older adults in long-term care.
Social isolation can increase the morbidity rate by increasing the risks for mental health disorders and other illnesses, and can even exacerbate neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia. In long-term care in particular, strict visitor policies and lack of technology for virtual visits can deprive residents of much-needed social interactions.
An ongoing study related to the University of Toronto is investigating the mental health, resilience and resilience of older adults in Toronto during the pandemic. The study is led by Dr. Benoit Mulsant and Dr. Linda Mah, in collaboration with the Baycrest Center, the Center for Addiction and Mental Health, and several Toronto hospitals.
In the coming months, this research will provide the necessary information on the emotional and mental impacts of the pandemic on older adults, which will guide physical distance decisions for COVID-19 and future pandemics.
At the same time, the spread of deaths from long-term care residents has prompted research into how their medical needs can be met in a safer way.
Researcher Dr. Fahad Razak and his colleagues at T Colleges U and St. Michaels Li Ka Shing sought to develop a method for the practical diagnosis of patients, avoiding unnecessary hospitalizations that could be a COVID-19 risk. Razak and colleagues found that outpatient care services and a virtual central hub for physicians could manage the medical needs of long-term care.
Social isolation and mental health
A particular area of interest is the mental health of students learning in a new era.
A study by the University of Toronto and McGill University followed 773 university students who participated in a mental health survey from May 2019 and reassessed their mental health in May 2020.
Comparing the mental health of students before and during the pandemic, the researchers observed different effects of COVID-19 on mental health. For students without pre-existing mental health conditions, their social isolation increased and their mental health decreased compared to pre-pandemic times. Surprisingly, students with previous mental health conditions reported similar or improved mental health.
These findings suggest that beyond supporting students with pre-existing conditions, universities and colleges should implement prevention and intervention programs for students who are experiencing increased mental health issues and stress during the pandemic.
Shortly after the pandemic was declared, Varsity interviewed Dr. Steve Joordens, a professor of psychology at UTSC, about his opinion on mental health and pandemic adaptation.
Joordens described how the pandemic creates feelings of anxiety because anxiety tends to come when we feel like we were under threat and either were not equipped or have no power to do anything about it.
In such situations, your sympathetic nervous system activates the fight or flight reaction, making you feel on the edge, Joordens said.
He added that the pandemic has resulted in a loss of organization, structure and human contact that the school would otherwise have provided. As such, feelings of anxiety and confusion may develop in students as they feel this loss.
Dr. Greg Dubord, an assistant professor of psychiatry at U and T, also stressed the need to reconfirm structure in their lives and adopt beneficial habits.
Both Joordens and Dubord suggested balancing receiving news and social media, maintaining a clean and organized environment, listening to music, singing and reading a favorite book to help cope with anxiety.
Joordens later launched a free course at Coursera aimed at helping students maintain a healthy mental state in blockage, divided into four modules that take a total of three hours to complete.
How systemic racism affects access to health care in indigenous communities
Marginalized communities, including racist individuals, immigrants, and those with lower incomes or levels of education are at higher risk for COVID-19. Toronto Public Health Statistics reveal that racist populations make up 83 percent of COVID-19 cases but only make up 52 percent of Toronto’s population.
The COVID-19 case rate for the populations of Latin America, the Arab, Middle East, and West Asia was found to be nine times higher, and the rate for the Black population six times higher than the white population.
There has also been research conducted at U e T that specifically examines the impact of COVID-19 on indigenous communities.
A recent paper by Dr. Lisa Richardson of the School of Medicine and Allison Crawford, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry, closely examined the relationship between the decolonization of indigenous peoples and COVID-19. Both Richardson and Crawford claimed that the medical practices of settlers in North America are just one of many aspects of life imposed on indigenous peoples during colonization.
As such, many of the healing practices of indigenous peoples were suppressed and ignored. This history of colonization has not only led to barriers to health care available to indigenous communities, but also to shortcomings in their social determinants of health.
Both authors argued that addressing social determinants of health in the short and long term would require decolonizing health care at the individual, organizational, and policy levels.
Dr. Michael Anderson, an indigenous physician and a member of the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, Dalla Lana School of Public Health, and the Waakebiness-Bryce Institute for Local Health, conducted a study on COVID-19 case data collection among indigenous communities.
Anderson explained that the health care system focuses on a history of systematic racism and discrimination. This not only results in lower health care funding for indigenous communities, but the history of health care systems also makes it difficult for indigenous people to believe in the system. As such, indigenous communities are not seeking medical attention and accurate data examining the impact of COVID-19 on indigenous communities cannot be collected.
The gender impact of the pandemic
On July 28, the Rotman School of Management Gender and Economics and the Christian Young Women Association of Canada released a report entitled, A Feminist Economic Recovery Plan for Canada: Making the Economy Work for All.
As the report discussed, the effects of the pandemic have been uneven, to say the least. Although the Canadian economy has suffered greatly as a result of COVID-19, these effects have been felt by some far more than others.
Women, in particular, have endured worse labor outcomes than men during the pandemic. According to the report, women accounted for 70 percent of job losses among working-age adults in March, the first month of most provincial blockages. These job losses included a reduction in hours or rest from one position altogether, affecting up to one in five women across the country.
LGBTQ + health and HIV prevention
University of Toronto experts express concerns about the challenges facing the LGBTQ + community during COVID-19. In an article co-authored with the University of Victoria and the Vancouver Community Research Center, Dr. David J. Brennan and PhD candidate David Collict at the Faculty of Social Work Factor-Inwentash describe the potential effects of physical distancing on the mental, social, and sexual health of LGBTQ + men and non-binary individuals.
Furthermore, Dr. Peter A. Newman from the University of Toronto and Dr. Adrian Guta from the University of Windsor has commented on potential challenges in preventing HIV during the pandemic, as marginalized communities face challenges such as discrimination and barriers to accessing condoms and HIV testing.
Newman and Guta also cite the importance of community-based positive engagement as a strategy to prevent HIV, rather than strategies that stigmatize sex, which fail to account for the complications of individuals’ sex lives and have proven ineffective.
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