Opinion: Canada's COVID 'long-haulers' need better care and support

More than half a million people in this country are facing long-term challenges from the coronavirus. That number is growing, as is the impact on their lives.

Ottawa Citizen 4 minute read October 14, 2021

Spencer van Vloten: 'There is no getting over the pandemic; there is only adapting to it, and we are not moving fast enough.' jpg

We hear the announcements daily. There were this many new cases yesterday; the other day so and so many people died or were hospitalized. Our success managing the pandemic is expressed in day-to-day numbers and how the ones today compare to those yesterday.

This extends to our treatment of COVID-19 too. Criteria vary by province, but are largely similar, with persons considered “recovered” from the illness when they have reached around seven-to-14 days post-diagnosis. These people are framed by health officials and in statistics as success stories, as the fortunate ones who are over it and have moved on with their lives.

And this short-sightedness is exactly why another crisis is brewing, one that threatens to be here long after the last COVID diagnosis is given.

For every person who dies of COVID, there are far more who live on with health problems that last well after their initial diagnosis, including chest pain, abdominal pain, chronic fatigue, severe shortness of breath and even stroke and diabetes.

One in five COVID patients is so seriously impacted that they emerge with a new disability, and one in three experiences neurological or psychiatric illness that persists long after the defined “recovery period.” And the cognitive impairments can be so severe that simply reading an email becomes an impossible task.

With 1.6 million Canadians having been diagnosed with COVID so far, more than half a million people are facing these long-term challenges. That number is growing, as is the impact on their lives.

Take employment. “Long haulers” are often unable to work because of their debilitating symptoms, making holding on to jobs difficult. The financial impact forces many to sell valuable possessions such as their cars or homes, and the cost of medication to ease symptoms further eats through their savings.

Relationships also crumble under the lifestyle changes and physical, mental and financial burdens created by this ongoing struggle, with divorce rates increasing rapidly as the number of people with post-COVID symptoms grows.

Depression has doubled during the pandemic too, growing especially pronounced for the unemployed, and as Jonah McGarva, founder of Long COVID Canada said about his ordeal, which has lasted over a year, “It wears down your sense of self-worth.”

And it is not just self-worth being jeopardized: our economy is already facing labour shortages, our health care system is overwhelmed, and our mental health system is at risk of being overburdened by a weight that grows heavier all the time and is not going away anytime soon.

So, what needs to be done?

One of the first steps is to acknowledge that persons diagnosed with COVID are playing a long game.

In the United States, measures have been taken that reflect this. Persons with long COVID are now eligible for disability assistance, which provides them with a monthly income and other supports to deal with the challenges of their ongoing illness. It is a recognition that a week or two is not the end of the ordeal.

The Canadian government has offered financial support here and there, but nothing comparable. Most of it has been very short-term, and little is in place to help those who have lost their jobs due to ongoing symptoms and are looking to return to work in a modified capacity.

Another way to demonstrate a long-term approach is for the health-care system to adapt to the needs of patients who have been diagnosed with COVID and continue to struggle well after the supposed recovery period. Post-COVID recovery clinics, which remain highly selective and inaccessible to many who need them, must be equipped with the resources to take on a growing number of patients, and medical professionals need to keep abreast with and show their understanding of the long-term impacts of the illness.

We must also do a better job of using our strengths collectively. The pandemic, rather than uniting Canadians in the face of a common foe, has pitted provinces against each other.

As part of the effort to address the pandemic’s long-term impact, greater coordination between policymakers, public health officials, and researchers is essential to cut down on inconsistencies that create confusion, conflict and delays in responding to Canadians in need.

Lacking a unified plan and having standards all over the place moving forward will slow us down in tackling a common problem that is here to stay.

The numbers we hear each day — the new cases, hospitalizations and deaths — are important, but we must also see the forest for the trees. As we respond to day-to-day challenges, we must simultaneously work to build infrastructure that will hold up under long-term strain, decades down the line.

There is no getting over the pandemic; there is only adapting to it, and we are not moving fast enough.

Spencer van Vloten is a community and disability advocate, and editor of BCDisability.com