One year after it first appeared, there is not one single aspect of people’s lives that has not been conditioned by this coronavirus. Work, finances, family, social relations and, obviously, health have all been disrupted by COVID-19. In order to try to determine how the pandemic is affecting the health of the Spanish population, Fundación MAPFRE and the market research company Salvetti Llombart undertook a study for which they conducted a total of 2,500 interviews.

TEXT: RAMÓN OLIVER IMÁGENES: ISTOCK

Emotional health

One of the key findings of The new health. Evolution of the concept of health during the COVID-19 crisis reveals that emotional health is the most affected by this health crisis. “Many of us have not caught COVID-19, but almost all of us have experienced fear, anguish, sadness, unease, sleep disorders… Clearly emotional and cognitive aspects,” comments Ida Castellsaguer, partner and business manager of Salvetti Llombart.

41 percent of respondents acknowledge that their emotional health has worsened as a result of the crisis and the uncertainty it has brought about. Discouragement, apathy, fear or anxiety are the most common problems. Who is suffering them? Women, young people aged 20 to 35, city dwellers, households with a large number of members, and those areas with less purchasing power are the most vulnerable.

Strict lockdown, return to activity, second wave… These months have been a continuous roller coaster ride. As the Health Promotion Manager at Fundación MAPFRE, Antonio Guzmán, points out, these ups and downs inevitably take an emotional toll. “We’ve been fighting the coronavirus for many months now, during which time we’ve modified all our habits, whether in terms of protection (face masks, social distancing, frequent hand washing, etc.), social (less contact with family and friends), or leisure. Many of the activities that, just one year ago, seemed normal, like going out for dinner or to the movies, now seem extraordinary. This leads us to a situation of mental exhaustion, or ‘pandemic fatigue’, which we had never experienced before.” 

The psychological effects of the virus are plainly evident in the mood of the general population. Seven percent say they feel “really bad” mentally. 25 percent believe their mental agility and memory have worsened due to increased fatigue (63 percent), stress (51 percent) and difficulty concentrating (48 percent), as well as managing everyday strain (42 percent).

Social distancing (83 percent), avoiding closed and crowded spaces (78 percent), more home-cooked food (40 percent), more time with family (44 percent) and more responsible consumption (43 percent) are some of the new post-pandemic habits

Interestingly, a unique, unprecedented situation such as the imposition of lockdown was experienced with relative calm by almost half of those surveyed, actually stating that they felt “calm and relaxed” during that period. Among its positive effects, more time with the family, a space for introspection and self-knowledge, or the opportunity it provided for nurturing culture and learning (reading, online courses, etc.).

For the Fundación MAPFRE Health Promotion Manager, the worst aspect of this climate of uncertainty is that “it keeps stretching on with no end in sight.”

How can we enhance our mental health in these circumstances? While it is indeed complicated, says Antonio Guzmán, the key is to remain positive. “We must strive to avoid thoughts and situations that produce negative emotions and are harmful for us,” is his advice. It is also most important to maintain relationships with friends and family through the new technologies. “Because social distancing is not synonymous with loneliness,” this expert reminds us.

Physical health and healthy habits

Those surveyed are more optimistic about their physical condition, with an average rating of seven out of ten. 50 percent say they feel “OK”, 42 percent say “very good” and only eight percent “very bad”. A large sector (60 percent) feels that their physical health is “the same as before the pandemic”; 19 percent believe it has even “improved”, while 22 percent think it has “worsened”. Youngsters aged 20 to 26 are the most affected group in this respect. Weight gain (54 percent), less exercise (53 percent), greater feeling of tiredness (51 percent), less energy (49 percent) and more headaches (42 percent) are the leading physical problems of Spaniards during the pandemic.

The pandemic also led to the adoption of new habits. 63 percent say they disinfect their home more using specific products, and 57 percent are paying greater attention in general to their health. Regular medical checkups (31 percent), eliminating or reducing harmful habits (25 percent) or taking up meditation/relaxation techniques (21 percent) are some of the habits this pandemic has brought into people’s lives.

Salud emocional, la otra pandemia de la pandemia

Diet and sport

One of the many aspects that have changed in the lives of Spaniards over the last few months has been their diet. Teleworking or the limitations imposed on the hospitality industry have led to people eating much more often at home than a year ago. 40 percent of Spaniards prepare more homemade food, which also affects the quality of the food they eat.

49 percent of respondents say they have adopted more wholesome eating habits. Avoiding processed foods, cooking recipes with more nutrients, or a preference for seasonal products are just some of the consequences of this healthy shift. Moreover, as Ida Castellsaguer stresses, we have seen a “revival” of homemade cooking and meals, both for the healthy aspect and the family fun side of it. “The kitchen has become a space for the whole family to look after their health in a fun, entertaining fashion,” she declares. A growing interest in local commerce and proximity produce, as well as verifying the traceability of the food we consume, are yet further consequences of this period.

Being confined to the home and the sedentary lifestyle drove the need to do sport and augment physical activity. The fear of contagion, however, led to sporting habits and routines being transferred inside the homes. “During lockdown we’ve discovered the home as a place for taking exercise. 40 percent of the population has been exercising at home, and 36 percent started doing so because of the pandemic,” Castellsaguer declares. However, this specialist believes that, “while changes in health and nutrition may well continue in the future, those related to the practice of physical exercise will probably not have the same impact in the medium-to-long term.”

Salud emocional, la otra pandemia de la pandemia

Health afforded greater importance

In general, the pandemic seems to have increased awareness of health questions among Spaniards. “We have gone from a concept of health highly focused on the tangible (the body), to understanding it as something broader and more holistic, including new dimensions such as the mind, well-being or emotions,” Ida Castellsaguer affirms.

This is confirmed by the study, with nine out of ten respondents stating that health is “very important in their lives” and declaring that “it is just as important to feel well emotionally as physically”. The lack of social interaction is one of the factors that is most affecting people’s well-being. Seven out of ten say they would like to lead a healthier lifestyle.

In addition, as Salvetti Llombart’s partner and business manager explains, “the pandemic has made us see that health is not an individual, but rather a collective, issue. Our health and our actions have an impact on others and vice versa.” Thus a concept of “tribe” comes into play, which, in Castellsaguer’s view, is highly positive. And, she concludes, the fact is that “as a society, we all have the opportunity to build a healthier environment and become aware that we are all interconnected.”