Weight and fitness huge factors in Covid risk
In the UK deaths per million from coronavirus are around the third highest globally, of any country with a large population. Obesity rates in the UK are the fourth highest in the world. Is this a casual link? New studies show that this is not the case and that obesity levels within populations are directly linked to the number of Covid fatalities.
Global research found that 90% of deaths have occurred in countries where a large proportion of the population are overweight or obese. The study by the World Obesity Foundation looked at nearly 100 countries and found 2.2 million deaths (out of 2.5 million deaths) happened in nations with high levels of obesity. Further to this, overall death rates were 10 times higher when more than half the population was overweight.
In further confirmation of the link, the Federation also found that no countries with low levels of obesity had a death rate of over 10 per hundred thousand people. And if that wasn’t enough to convince you, every country with death rates over 100 per hundred thousand has obesity rates of over 50%. Contrary to this, the country with one of the lowest death rates is Vietnam, which has fewer overweight people than most nations, with only 18% overweight. Japan and Singapore have also continued the trend with their low levels of obesity matching fewer deaths from Covid.
In a study published in the Lancet, the direct link between obesity and Covid is stark. For people with a BMI of 35 to 40 risk of dying from Covid increases by 40%. For those who are morbidly obese with a BMI over 50 the chance of death rises by 90%. The World Health Organisation said that the findings should be a “wake-up call” for governments to finally take serious steps to slim down their population.
The director-general of the World Health Organisation, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said: “This report must act as a wake-up call to governments globally. The correlation between obesity and mortality rates from Covid-19 is clear and compelling. Investment in public health and coordinated, international action to tackle the root causes of obesity is one of the best ways for countries to build resilience in health systems post-pandemic. We urge all countries to seize this moment”.
The chief executive of the World Obesity Federation, Johanna Ralston said: “The failure to address the root causes of obesity over many decades is clearly responsible for hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths.”
The former deputy leader of the Labour Party, Tom Watson, was also equally damning:
“Failure to keep pubic policy promises on tackling obesity has cost many lives. It’s a stern message for grieving families and people who have lost jobs and income to hear: much this crisis was preventable. Surely now, the lesson for post-pandemic Britain is a massive shakeup to public health policy?”
The report also suggests the necessity of lockdowns and the economic costs of preventing health services from being over-run could have been significantly mitigated if governments had tackled population weight issues before the pandemic.
A good place to start is Japan. In 2008, their government introduced the “Metabo law”, requiring everyone between the ages of 40 and 74 to get their waist circumference measured annually. Employers of those with waistlines above approved limits must provide weight loss classes.
What actions might stop the obesity epidemic?
Sport and home economics a priority in all schools
Bringing the public sector schools up to speed with private schools would not only provide the “levelling up” that governments have said is needed but would also sow the seeds of a healthy and fit future generation. Time spent in sport at private schools can be as much as 300% higher than government-run ones. Teaching the benefits of sport, recreation and exercise, with competitive sport and a wide variety of activities on offer is the foundation. This means providing sports fields, halls and equipment, as well as proper coaches. Healthy cooking (on a budget) and simple education on the perils of fast food, or even a league table of fast foods ranked from worst to least bad would be helpful. plus an understanding of food labelling with simple achievable guidelines.
A fairer taxation system allowing for healthy foods to be cheaper than fast foods.
A world where fatty sugary foods are cheaper than healthy organic food will never be conducive to a slim and healthy country. Whether through taxation, quotas or incentives, organic or at least healthy food should become cheaper than pre-packaged and processed food high in fat and sugar
Incentives to be a healthy weight
These could be far-ranging, from cheaper private health insurance to a lower level of income tax for those who are a healthy weight. A lowering of NIS contributions for those at a healthy weight (or even better waist to height ratio) with an increase for those in higher brackets would be a step in the right direction.
A changing of social norms
In the 70s the proposition of no smoking in pubs wouldn’t have been believable. But here we are, and smoking rates have decreased dramatically as a consequence. Even more powerful is the change in social attitudes to drink driving, which is now commonly seen as both dangerous and uncool by young people. . If it was possible for smoking, and drinking, it’s possible for obesity. Although fat shaming never works, with support and encouragement being a much more successful tactic, normalisation of overweight and obese people is nonetheless counterproductive.
Exercise and sports in the workplace
Many Japanese firms have exercise as part of their daily routine. Although in the UK some businesses have sports or sports teams at work, an expansion of this both in terms of the number of firms and the number of activities available would help to create an inclusive and healthy environment at work. Again government and private incentives and schemes could be put in place to get the ball rolling.
It’s easy to see some of these solutions as controversial and difficult, but as long as nothing is done, those who work hard to be fit and healthy will continue to be penalised by those who are not, as the current lockdowns and restrictions have shown. And those that are overweight will be missing out on the huge rewards that good health and exercise bring.