As the COVID-19 pandemic remains a crucial global public health threat, pandemic control measures such as lockdowns and mobility restrictions continue to disrupt the provision of health services, leading to reduced healthcare use. Indeed, evidence shows the pandemic has emerged as a particular challenge for people with chronic conditions such as diabetes and hypertension. Yet there is limited data comparing the pandemic’s impact on access to care and the severity of chronic disease symptoms at the population level across Asia.
Now a new collaborative study, published by the Asia Pacific Journal of Public Health, addresses this limitation. The study co-authors, including APARC’s Asia Health Policy Program Director and FSI Senior Fellow Karen Eggleston, offer the first report comparing the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated mobility restrictions on people with chronic conditions at different stages of socio-demographic and economic transitions in five Asian regions — India, China, Hong Kong, Korea, and Vietnam.
The findings show that the pandemic has disproportionately disrupted healthcare access and worsened diabetes symptoms among marginalized and rural populations in Asia. Moreover, the pandemic’s broad social and economic impact has adversely affected population health well beyond those directly suffering from COVID-19, with the resulting delayed and foregone care leading to uncertain longer-term effects.
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Routine screening, risk factor control, and continuity of care for non-communicable diseases are a global challenge. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the challenge even further. Existing reports show the pandemic has particularly adverse impacts on essential prevention and treatment services for people with chronic conditions. These reductions in health services arose from pandemic-associated factors such as mobility restrictions, lack of public transport, and lack of health workforce.
Eggleston and a group of colleagues set out to provide evidence on how the pandemic has impacted chronic disease care in diverse settings across Asia during COVID-19-related lockdowns. Using standardized questionnaires, the researchers surveyed 5672 participants aged 55.9 to 69.3 years with chronic conditions in India, China, Hong Kong, Korea, and Vietnam. The researchers collected data on participants’ demographic and socio-economic status, comorbidities, access to healthcare, employment status, difficulty in accessing medicines due to financial and nonfinancial (COVID-19 related) reasons, treatment satisfaction, and severity of their chronic condition symptoms.
The results show that the pandemic’s broad social and economic impact has adversely affected population health well beyond those directly suffering from COVID-19. Study participants with chronic conditions faced significant challenges in managing their symptoms during the pandemic. They experienced a loss of income and difficulties in accessing healthcare or medications, with the resulting delayed and foregone care leading to uncertain longer-term effects. For a nontrivial portion of participants, these factors are associated with the worsening of diabetes symptoms. The threat is twofold among people living in rural populations with limited access, availability, and affordability of healthcare services.
The unintended adverse consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on chronic disease care may also further aggravate inequality in health outcomes. “If the trend continues and no immediate actions are taken to mitigate pandemic impacts,” Eggleston and her colleagues caution, then “the Asia-Pacific region will struggle to achieve the 2030 Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target 3.4 to reduce premature mortality from non-communicable diseases by a third relative to 2015 levels and to promote mental health and wellbeing.”
Addressing the pandemic’s unintended negative social and economic impacts on chronic disease care is a global health priority, determine the researchers. They propose several measures to help provide timely care for people with chronic conditions in resource-constrained settings. These include implementing innovations in healthcare delivery models to improve the adoption of healthy lifestyle changes and self-management of chronic disease and mild COVID-19 symptoms, increasing investment in interventions to provide social and economic support to disadvantaged populations, and strengthening primary healthcare infrastructure and support of healthcare providers.
The study was supported in part by funding from Shorenstein APARC’s faculty research award, Stanford King Center for Global Development, and a seed grant from the Stanford Center for Asian Health Research and Education.