The Daily Telegraph
Lessons from the lockdown
Coronavirus may have turned our lives upside down, but as Sharon Walker reports, it has had some surprising benefits
It’s been a time of unimaginable suffering, but the Covid crisis has also brought some silver linings, including some surprising health benefits.
So, what health lessons did we learn in lockdown and how can we continue to make the most of them?
Improved hand hygiene
Covid has finally convinced us to take hand-washing seriously, which can only be a good thing.
“Hand-washing is an incredibly effective way of stopping a wide range of infectious diseases,” says Prof Jeremy Rossman, honorary senior lecturer in virology at the University of Kent. “We’ve seen how it can reduce the transmission of respiratory infections like Covid and flu, but it’s especially important for infections passed through the oral-faecal route, like norovirus.
“These viruses are spread very effectively if someone touches a contaminated surface, then touches their face. And polio is another long-standing example. A long time ago, when they were trying to make surgery safer, the first thing to have the biggest impact was getting surgeons to wash their hands.”
And the 20-second rule still applies
“Hand-washing with soap and warm water kills everything within 20-30 seconds,” says Prof Rossman. In pre-covid times, the average person washed their hands for 10 seconds, killing 90 per cent of germs, which might sound like a good result until you consider how fast bugs multiply.
‘If children have a shared meal to look forward to, it will help with their wellbeing’
‘There has definitely been a feeling of camaraderie with people rallying’
Equally, hand sanitiser, which must be 60-70 per cent alcohol, should be used properly. “Soak your hands and let it dry,” says Prof Rossman. “If you don’t soak your hands or wipe your hands before it’s dried, it won’t kill everything. It will reduce the risk but not eliminate it.”
With gyms closed and exercise one of the only reasons we could leave the house, many of us discovered the joys of exercise in the great outdoors, which is good for mental health.
While any kind of exercise yields physical health benefits, exercise in nature helps us feel happier and more alert, as confirmed by a study published in journal PLOS One, which found that a 45-minute hike yields far greater mental health benefits than walking on a treadmill for 45 minutes.
Even a simple 20-minute stroll in nature significantly reduces stress hormones in your body, according a study from Frontiers in Psychology. A weekly “green pill” of at least two hours in nature is the minimum dose needed to feel happier and healthier, according to research in the Journal of Nature. It doesn’t seem to matter whether you get your nature fix in one long session, or several shorter bursts, throughout the week.
More family meals
With the daily commute cancelled, along with after-school clubs, gathering at the table became a daily occurrence. And it wasn’t only parents who appreciated this. Researchers from Guy’s and St Thomas’s Charity and the Bite Back 2030 healthy eating charity, found 60 per cent of young people, when questioned on their eating habits during lockdown, thought the increase in shared family meal times was good for health and well-being.
“As a family therapist, I know that during times of uncertainty, both children and adults need rituals, like shared mealtimes, more than ever to provide connection and meaning,” says psychologist Anne Fishel, author of Home for Dinner and founder of The Family Dinner Project. “During the pandemic, if kids have one shared meal to look forward to each day, when they know there will be silliness and fun, as well as a chance to share feelings and feel heard, this regular time of bonding will go a long way to maintaining their well-being.”
Research also shows that children who eat with their parents are more optimistic, do better at school, and are more likely to get their five a day.
With only 58 per cent of UK families routinely sharing weekday meals pre-lockdown, how can we maintain this habit as other commitments creep back?
“Remember that if a shared breakfast or lunch works better, that is just as good as dinner,” says Fishel. “The benefits of mealtime, like better grades and nutrition, lower rates of substance abuse and depression, don’t spring from making a gourmet meal. The benefits come from the atmosphere at the table being warm and welcoming, with kids and adults having a chance to talk and feel heard.”
Switch to active ‘transport’
Another flicker of hope amid the Covid gloom was how nature bounced back as pollution dipped. Deer skipped across Italian beaches, dolphins swooped into Venice and people in the Punjab reported seeing the Himalayas for the first time in three decades.
Nitrous dioxide pollution plummeted by 20-60 per cent in cities, as a drastic drop in commuting and school runs caused traffic to grind to a halt. Pollution from fine particles (PM 2.5), often caused by cooking and agriculture, also fell by 10-20 per cent.
“Air pollution is the main environmental factor that causes respiratory disease and heart disease,” says Prof Alastair Lewis from the National Centre for Atmospheric Science at the University of York, who is currently chairman of the UK government independent science advisory group on air pollution. “The health risks of pollution are broadly comparable to other risk factors like obesity, inactivity or deprivation.
“A reduction over the short term could bring some benefits, but the main health benefits would be seen with a sustained improvement in pollution, say over five years.”
And we can all do our bit by driving less
“The optimum way is to walk or cycle, as a lot of people have been discovering this summer, and it solves two problems by dealing with pollution, and physical activity and weight loss,” says Prof Lewis.
“If you have to commute long distances, electric vehicles are cleaner, and public transport is better due to economies of scale. Certainly try to avoid commuting in old vehicles with poor emission controls.” And avoid driving at peak times where possible. “Stopping and starting in traffic is terrible for pollution,” says Prof Lewis.
Bounce back with kindness
While the pandemic has been challenging, it’s also offered unearthed a deep well of empathy and resilience. “There has definitely been a feeling of camaraderie,” says Lowri Dowthwaite, a lecturer in psychological interventions at the University of Central Lancashire, “with people rallying together and the Thursday night clap. It’s different from a war effort, but it’s also similar, with everyone fighting this one thing together.”
This kind of community spirit response builds our “post-traumatic strength”. “Rather than going into fight or flight, where we attack each other and become aggressive, we confide in and console one another, and we know that kind of sociability is hugely important for our mental well-being,” says Dowthwaite.
In fact, a study of residents from Hong Kong who lived through the Sars pandemic found that while people experienced trauma, most reported positive changes as a result of the crisis.
So how can we maintain this? Dowthwaite suggests taking the time to reflect on what we’ve learnt and what we want to do differently, whether that’s volunteering on an ongoing basis (charities like Bookmark are offering online volunteer opportunities, suitable for those who are shielding), or making more time for family.
Don’t be afraid to go to hospital
The number of people seeking urgent treatment for heart attack has dropped by half in lockdown, according to research published in European Heart Journal – Quality of Care & Clinical Outcomes. This sounds positive, if it wasn’t for the spike in deaths at home.
“There has been a lack of public reassurance that every effort has been made to provide clean hospital areas for non-covid-19 patients,” says Prof Barbara Casadei, president of the European Society of Cardiology.
“Yet the risk of dying of a heart attack is much greater than that of dying of Covid-19. Cardiac death is largely preventable if patients with a heart attack come to hospital in time to get treatment. What we are witnessing is an unnecessary loss of life.” Cardiac patients aren’t the only ones missing out on life-saving urgent care – there are also worries about those with asthma and diabetes, who are failing to seek hospital treatment when they need it. “There are clear lessons to learn from this,” says Prof Robert Storey, professor of cardiology at the University of Sheffield.
“An important one being that advice on staying at home should be nuanced so as not to discourage people with symptoms of heart attack or stroke from seeking help from the emergency services and attending hospital as necessary.”