Usually I ignore the accompanying pictures when I am reading a newspaper article about health. Just recently however, I have noticed something about the pictures that accompany articles about Long COVID.
Here’s a typical example – a picture of somebody, and it’s nearly always a young woman, reclining on a sofa looking exhausted. Of course we don’t need a photo to help us understand the idea of being exhausted, in the way that we might want an illustration for an article about recent floods or trouble at a street demonstration. So I took to wondering what was going on.
The use of such pictures may represent no more than a desire to break up blocks of text. But there are a couple of features that drew me to thinking of how similar images have been used to convey something about other conditions.
First, here’s a rather typical image from an article about the 19th Century malady neurasthenia: a woman reclines and does not look, if truth be told, especially discomforted by her experience.
From a different era and with another typical feature (hand on forehead) I didn’t have to look far to find this illustration (left) from an article about premenstrual syndrome.
And just to counter the idea that these things are entirely gendered here’s a picture (below) with another typical feature – it’s the back of the hand on the forehead – from an article about man flu’.
Perhaps what I’m seeing is no more than a lazy use of stock images but regardless of motive it occurs to me that there’s more to be said. The visual rhetoric hints at connections that the written text may not – between Long COVID and a group of conditions that have over the years shared some degree of being dismissed, of dubious provenance and melodramatic in presentation. And by implication, faintly ridiculous.
I don’t think this representation of illness does any favours to the discussion about the nature of Long COVID – not just to the question of possible underlying pathophysiology but also to the question of whether some cases are psychosomatic (functional) in part or whole.
My solution would be twofold: time to drop the use of the term Long COVID for the trouble it causes by bundling together so many disparate conditions. And when writing about the sequelae of COVID infection it’s time to drop the use of pictures of tired people resting, hand-on-forehead, on the sofa.
How common is Long Covid? Top of the range, with estimates of nearly 40% of people who’ve had Covid still being symptomatic 12 weeks later, come the REACT-2 study and a recently-published analysis from a US database. In the basement come estimates of 0% from a follow up study of children in Melbourne who had recovered from mild or asymptomatic infection, 2.3% at 12 weeks (the Zoe survey), 4% from a study of schoolchildren in Zurich, and 5% for symptoms at 12-16 weeks from a recent ONS survey. And other estimates in between…
Why is there so much variation? There are the usual suspects – results may be influenced by differences in the samples in terms of age, gender, BMI, vaccination status and so on. Many of the symptoms reported are non-specific (such as fatigue, aches and pains, difficulties with concentration) and endorsement is likely to depend upon exactly how they are asked about and whether an attribution to Covid infection is required. Response rates varied greatly – only 13% in a substantial UCL UCL study of young people and 20% in an ONS study of school children. Some attempt to adjust is possible but response bias and confounding can’t be entirely discounted.
Maybe there’s an issue of reporting threshold – the higher estimates coming from counting relatively minor experiences while the lower estimates count only more severe symptoms. Certainly there seems to be an inverse relationship between number of symptoms and prevalence, but severity (intensity, intrusiveness) is harder to gauge from readily available reports. An ONS survey from earlier this year suggested that only about 1 in 10 respondents was limited a lot by their experiences. An intriguing finding from a study of NHS general practice records suggests that GPs are recording very few cases by comparison with those reported from research surveys – in fact about 100th of the numbers, with a quarter of GPs using NHS codes for Long Covid to describe no cases at all in the study period. The headline of the Guardian’s report of the study this article was amended after publication. An earlier version said that GPs in England were “failing to recognise thousands of long Covid cases”. The headline was changed to indicate that the research concluded that “long Covid coding in primary care is low compared with early reports of long Covid prevalence”.” An acknowledgement that at least one possible explanation is that GPs are applying a clinical-severity filter not recognized by researchers.
Another way to ask about the significance of “Long Covid” symptoms is to consider the prevalence of the same sort of symptoms in the general population. For example persistent fatigue is reported by between 10 and 20% of the general population and something like 50% of people with an identified physical disorder. Not many Long Covid studies collect data from comparison groups, but one ONS survey suggested 3.4% of non-Covid respondents had the same symptoms as the Covid+ respondents and the UCL study found a figure of 16%. In both studies the Covid respondents had more symptoms than the non-Covid respondents, but between-study differences raise again the question of why so much variation – no doubt it’s down to sampling, how the questions were asked, and response rates.
So … what is the value, and what is the likely outcome, of collecting not-very-accurate information on underspecified populations of people who have had a Covid infection and who for the most part have non-specific symptoms that are common in the general population? It may be that the result will be a better understanding of the nature of longer-term problems attributable (or attributed) to Covid infection, but it isn’t clear that these surveys are the most efficient way of getting there. And there are potential pitfalls – Long Covid manifestly isn’t a single condition and it is difficult not to see, in the current approach to researching it, the process that Ian Hacking called Making Up People – the bringing into being of a new category of people with what may turn out to be a transient illness (transient as a medical category that is, not for the individual) – in ways that are not beneficial to anybody concerned.
A start would surely be to stop using the term Long Covid. It’s unlikely we’ll convince the media or pressure groups to drop it, but a move in the right direction would be if researchers and clinicians started using more specific terminology to describe exactly what it is they are studying and why.
I was struck by this week’s variously-reported claim from Adrian James, the current president of RCPsych, that the pandemic is “the biggest hit to mental health since World War 2” (Mail Online) or “poses the greatest threat to mental health since second world war” (Guardian). My initial response was heartsink – yet more melodrama with yet another wartime analogy, especially something I could do without as plucky Britain goes it alone again as we leave the EU. But then I got thinking – where would you look for comparator epochs if you wanted to take this claim at face value? Two candidates come to mind; each covers 5 years.
First up, the post-war years 1947-1951. Winter 1946/47 was one of the worst winters on record, exacerbated by a fuel shortage for which the Labour Govt (personified in Manny Shinwell) was blamed, at least by the press. Industrial output is estimated to have fallen by 10% in the following year. The Labour Party held on at the 1950 general election but lost the snap election called the next year. In that year, 1951, there was a major influenza epidemic which is estimated to have increased all-cause mortality in those over 65 years by about 50% and causing the greatest number of excess winter deaths in any year in the second half of the twentieth century. Peak death rates in Liverpool were higher than during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918.
My runner up is the years 1980-84. Thatcherism had a grip and there was social unrest with riots in 1981 in Brixton and Toxteth. On the economic front unemployment ran at 2.5-3 million (more than 10% of the working age population) and the hugely disruptive and divisive miners’ strike dominated 1984.
Set against these threats we have to ask about resilience in the population. The post-war years saw continued rationing and poor housing and poor physical health at levels we go nowhere near approaching. The NHS was founded but will have had little impact on mental health provision. It is difficult to know what to make of any sense of national unity and social solidarity at this time; much is made of growing disillusion with Attlee’s government but in 1951 they still gained more of the popular vote than did Churchill. They lost to our electoral system. Society in the 1980s was more affluent and physically healthier and the NHS had grown hugely, but it was undoubtedly troubled. Thatcher was a divisive leader of a divisive government, notwithstanding populist moves like selling off our social housing and privatising services in support of the idea of a laughably-named share-owning democracy.
So, there are elements of our current predicament in these previous epochs. How could we judge each in terms of their mental health impact? I find this pretty much impossible to say and we don’t get a clue from the press coverage. As with all NHS bed numbers, psychiatric bed numbers have fallen dramatically from about 155,000 (1953/54) to 67,000 (1987/88) and 18,000 (2019/20) so numbers of admissions won’t help. The Mental Health Acts of 1959 and 1983 will have dramatically changed practice and patterns of service delivery. The only robust measure of population mental health – the suicide rate – has fallen pretty steadily over the decades, with the most consistent evidence for deterioration coming at times of economic recession and mass unemployment.
It would be interesting to see a thoughtful analysis of these questions about the nature of major social upheavals and their consequences for mental health, but if it’s going on it’s not making it into the public domain. A note from March 2020 states that SPI-B received input from academic specialists in history; that committee’s terms of reference for October 2020 do not mention historians as one of the academics from whom advice is being sought. What a pity.