Unanswered questions about COVID-19’s impact

As the COVID-19 pandemic enters its fourth year, there are plenty of unanswered questions about the impact that illness, lockdowns and restrictions has had on our health and wellbeing. Have loneliness levels increased? How did access to health care change? Whose mental health has worsened? What cumulative impact did natural disasters plus the pandemic have on Australians’ health and wellbeing?

Investigating these new research questions is critical to planning for future pandemic responses, says Dr Kerrin Bleicher, Director of Research Assets at the Sax Institute. “We have an ageing population, so the impact of future pandemics on older Australians will be even more significant.”

The COVID Data Hub – data from a series of five rapid surveys plus a supplement questionnaire sent to 45 and Up Study participants between June 2020 and March 2022 – can help researchers explore the pandemic’s impact on older people. The Hub has eleven demographic variables, including disability status, remoteness, and multi-morbidity, with a significant number of people in diverse populations, says Dr Bleicher. “Survey information can also be linked to a wealth of administrative data, like the Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS), hospital data and immunisations,” she says. “This enables researchers to identify new conditions, health care use and important outcomes.”

These five research areas haven’t yet been investigated using the COVID Data Hub:

What impact did pandemic restrictions and lockdowns have on loneliness?

Intense loneliness has increased throughout the pandemic, data from COVID Data Hub shows.  In the fifth rapid survey, conducted in March 2022, 11% of survey participants were intensely lonely, compared to 9% in the third survey (conducted in mid-2021) and 10% in the first survey (conducted in late-2020). Loneliness was measured with six questions from the De Jong Gierveld Loneliness Scale. “There’s a great deal of scope for researchers here – you could investigate associations between loneliness and chronic disease, cardiovascular health or mental health,” Dr Bleicher says.

Whose mental health deteriorated during the pandemic?

The self-reported impact of the pandemic on mental health was measured in all five of the rapid surveys, and the change over time was notable.  By March 2022, 44% felt their mental health had deteriorated because of the pandemic, compared to 32% in the third survey. Across all the surveys, more women reported an impact on their mental health than men. Researchers could compare this with data on psychological distress that was gathered in three of the five surveys, as well as the use of MBS-funded mental health services, Dr Bleicher says. “There’s also the potential to explore how the impact varied across the state and between groups such as carers or people with a disability.”

How has access to health changed over the pandemic?

The COVID Data Hub’s data on missed health care is extremely valuable because it is not captured in any other data sources, “We asked about missed care, if people re-booked that service and how missing that healthcare impacted their health,” Dr Bleicher says. Missed care peaked in the fourth survey (conducted in late 2021) with 30% of women and 21% of men reporting missed care. Because the COVID Data Hub includes geocoded address data, missed care can also be analysed through geographic variation and compared with either the severity of lockdowns in that area or instances of natural disasters. “We know that in the March 2022 survey, for instance, there was a significant increase in missed care in Northern NSW, which ties in with the floods,” Dr Bleicher says.

What is the cumulative impact of natural disasters and the pandemic?

In the third survey, conducted in mid-2021, participants were asked a series of questions on the impact felt from natural disasters. The responses showed widespread impact, with around 30% affected by bushfires or floods. “Participants provided specific details, like if they lost their homes, and that can be combined with what they told us about the impact of the pandemic,” Dr Bleicher says. These findings could be analysed to better understand the impact of natural disasters on health care needs and health outcomes.

How were diverse populations affected by the pandemic?

“This area again has a lot of scope, because you can take a certain issue, like loneliness, and look at various demographics, or take a certain group, like people with a disability, and analyse the impact of the lockdowns, missed care and longer-term outcomes using this novel data,” Dr Bleicher says. The survey data indicates that loneliness greatly impacted people with a disability, with 24% of the group reporting intense loneliness in March 2022 (compared to 11% of all participants), and that they were more likely to miss health care during the pandemic compared to the general population.

Researchers interested in using the COVID Data Hub or linking it to other data sources can find out more about the resource and pricing options here. Please contact the 45 and Up Study team at 45andUp.research@saxinstitute.org.au to discuss your project requirements.