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Infectious Diseases

Updated 03 June 2020

SA involved in massive global study on effects of Covid-19 pandemic - and you can play your part

Researchers from the University of Stellenbosch are calling on South Africans to partake in the largest global study measuring the impact of the pandemic on people’s health.

  • Study looking at both physical and mental health effects of pandemic
  • Researchers hoping to collect information from more than 100 000 people
  • In South Africa, study being led by Stellenbosch University


The Covid-19 pandemic is a double crisis: as much as the virus is a global threat to physical health, it has also quickly become a challenge to mental health. And, as resilient as we may be during this bizarre time, the effects of lockdown and quarantine can be especially tough for those who don't have strong support systems. By the end of March, more than 100 countries worldwide had instituted either a full or partial lockdown, the BBC notes.

The Collaborative Outcomes study on Health and Functioning during Infection Times (COH-FIT) is currently running a study that is measuring the impact of the pandemic on people’s physical and mental health worldwide. It is the largest global study of its kind, and is being launched by over 200 international investigators, led by Professor Christoph Correll from the US/Germany, and Dr Marco Solmi from Italy.

Through a survey, the study aims to collect information from over 100 000 participants from more than 40 countries and six continents. In South Africa, the study has been approved by Stellenbosch University's Health Research Ethics Committee and is being led by Professor Soraya Seedat and Dr Georgina Spies. Health24 chats to Dr Spies about the study.

Health crisis caused by Covid-19: Why the study is critical

Both the lockdown and the pandemic have unintended negative consequences, explains Spies, and says that it will arguably have a severe short-term and long-term impact on the mental health of the world’s population.

“It is vital that we detect and treat psychiatric symptoms in people with Covid-19 and their contacts. The outbreak of SARS in 2003 has been referred to as a mental health catastrophe. Research shows that 30 months after the SARS outbreak, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was the most prevalent long-term psychiatric condition, followed by depressive disorders. Approximately 60% of survivors met criteria for any psychiatric disorder.

“This highlights the importance of addressing the population-level mental health impact of Covid-19. Attention also needs to be given to risk groups. Currently, billions of people worldwide are either in full or partial lockdown, which has been termed the ‘world’s greatest psychological experiment’, and predicted to result in a secondary epidemic of burnouts and stress-related absenteeism.”

Increase risk in mental illness expected

In light of strict measures taken by governments during the Covid-19 crisis, Spies says that not only is an increased risk of new episodes of mental illness expected, but that health professionals also expect increased risk of recurrence in those with pre-existing mental illness. Financial stress is another key challenge for millions of people during the lockdown, and Spies says that due to the economic crisis caused by the pandemic, we can also expect negative mental health consequences.

“We know from research that severe economic recession has been linked to population-level psychological distress, including the emergence, and worsening, of mood, anxiety and substance-related disorders and suicidal behaviour.

Spies also mentions research that shows that during other epidemics such as SARS, MERS, H1N1 and Ebola, there was the significant, long-lasting psychological impact of being in quarantine, which eventually contributed to after-effects such as posttraumatic stress symptoms, depression, and alcohol abuse, among others. “As with other mass traumatic events in countries around the world, Covid-19 is expected to result in PTSD in a proportion of South Africans,” Spies adds.

Strong likelihood of targeted therapy

The resources needed to deal with the mental health consequences of this virus will likely place an additional burden on an already resource-limited mental and physical healthcare system, Spies says. Study researchers, therefore, aim to help identify potential therapeutic targets to prevent poor health outcomes, and to also increase chances of improved outcomes in particularly vulnerable individuals. Once the data is gathered, the researchers will then be able to determine where resources should be allocated to make the biggest difference.

“Interventions for both the general population and for vulnerable groups such as healthcare workers, women, youth, the elderly, and the mentally ill, refugees, migrants, and people living with disabilities are needed during the lockdown and through the different stages of the pandemic. A comprehensive set of multi-sectoral interventions will be necessary in this country. These interventions should target mental health, well-being and resilience,” explains Spies. 

Developed vs. developing countries: the difference in impact 

Although developed countries like the US and Italy have been among the hardest hit during this pandemic, the impact is expected to be a bigger disaster for developing nations. Spies explains: 

“More than 50% of South Africans live below the poverty line. Even with government-led intervention packages aimed at mitigating the negative economic impact of Covid-19 in South Africa, the economic repercussions will be enormous. There is no definitive evidence yet, but poor South Africans are likely to disproportionately bear the physical and mental health, and social and economic consequences of this virus.” 

How long the COH-FIT study will run

Researchers will be collecting data to assess the acute effects of the pandemic and related quarantine measures for as long as Covid-19 is evolving, Spies tells us, adding that the study will collect information now, as well as six and 12 months after the pandemic is declared over by the WHO, so that they can assess its chronic effects on the population.

“We must not forget about the potentially pervasive mental health impact of this epidemic,” Spies says.

To help the research team gather data, please take the survey at www.coh-fit.com.

READ | Coronavirus in SA: All the confirmed cases

READ | OPINION | The mental health effects of Covid-19 are as important to address as the physical effects

READ | Looking after your mental health during the coronavirus crisis

Image: Getty/damircudic