Study sheds light on how serious people find COVID-19 compared to other health problems

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A large study of seven countries sheds light on how seriously they view the Covid-19 pandemic compared to other major public health issues. The results were surprising and provide guidance to health care providers as well as policy makers.

Researchers from the seven Environment for Development (EfD) Centers and the EfD Global Hub based at the University of Gothenburg conducted a comprehensive study of how people with severe disabilities perceive COVID-19. This research is now yielding results in the form of publications, the first being: Perceptions of the severity of major public health problems during the COVID-19 pandemic in seven middle-income countries.

Respiratory diseases are more serious

More than 10,000 respondents rated the seriousness of seven health problems (alcohol and drug use, HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, lung cancer and water-borne diseases such as respiratory diseases and diarrhea due to air pollution and smoking).

Their answers revealed that respiratory illnesses were considered a more serious problem than COVID-19 in most countries. Surprisingly, in six of the seven countries, respondents ranked waterborne diseases as the least serious health problem. In the seventh country (South Africa) it was second to last. In Africa, people felt that alcoholism and drug use were also more serious than COVID-19.

Don’t rush into general healthcare

These results are important because they show that people still care about the health problems they faced before the pandemic.

“An important lesson for health ministries is not to get too carried away with what the media focuses on at a particular point in time. It’s important to avoid crowding out general health services,” said Dale Whittington.

“It is also clear that public perceptions of the seriousness of health problems can differ significantly between countries and between segments of the population as defined by demographics and knowledge.”

EfD Director Gunnar Kohlin noted that the study is unique in the way it brings together researchers from seven countries in the Global South with leading researchers from the US and Sweden in a joint data collection and analysis effort.

“Such a study could put novel events like the Covid-19 pandemic into perspective as a more persistent challenge to countries in the Global South,” he said.

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