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The long-term effects of COVID could affect South Africans for years to come

Updated: May 27

A report commissioned by Insurer Liberty suggests the long-term health effects of COVID-19 could mean drastic changes ahead for many South Africans. Meanwhile, the medical and financial services industries are going to have to adapt to cope with these effects.

The life expectancy of South Africans is projected to decrease with every 1% decrease in Gross Domestic Product as a result of COVID-19. This is according to the COVID-19 Trends Report: Navigating the Flux, a report commissioned by Liberty that looks at the future health risks of COVID-19 on South African citizens.

This finding associates with the notion that a sick nation directly correlates with a weak economy. With National Treasury having already predicted a contraction of the economy by approximately 5 – 10 percent, the health and insurance industries will need to adapt for these future outcomes.

Speaking at a media webinar hosted by the group, David Jewell, Liberty's Group Executive for Retail Solutions said, "The COVID-19 pandemic is resulting in significant damage to the economy and deep human cost, in terms of loss of life and impact on physical and psychological wellbeing.  In this time of disruption it is pivotal for us to deliver on our promises and meet our clients in their moments of greatest human vulnerability".

Jewell further adds: "While there is much uncertainty concerning the long-term health consequences of the virus, it has left many people reassessing what is really important, and we believe that it presents an opportunity for us to deliver certainty to them through solutions that meet their evolving needs". 

"Studies have suggested that in South Africa, the years of life lost could range from 26,800 to 473,500, caused by the lockdown and subsequent economic contraction. As the world works towards a 0% transmission of COVID-19, it is likely that the virus will lead to an increase in chronic illness, which will have an effect on both our citizens and the industries that serve to keep them healthy and secure,” explained Bronwyn Williams, Trend Translator and Future Finance Specialist for Flux Trends.

The immediate health effects are already apparent, with co-morbidities placing large swathes of the South African population at risk for the harshest symptoms of the virus. Among these health morbidities – cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) – obesity is of particular concern, as the report highlights that 70% of SA women are technically obese, and a third of men are also overweight.

According to Dr. Dominique Stott, Chief Medical Officer at Liberty, the biggest threat to healthcare systems, as well as insurers, is hospital and ICU overload, as the first wave of COVID-19 sufferers seek medical attention. The virus by nature is unpredictable in that at first, the medical fraternity was treating it as a respiratory condition but have since migrated it to a cardiovascular condition. Furthermore, short and long-term disability benefit claims are also likely to increase, for the 20 – 30% of infected people who require hospitalisation or even ICU admission.

“Life cover benefits are particularly important now that the mortality rate is increased. Studies have shown that 80% of the deaths in South Africa were people over the age of 60. But death rates are also increased for those clients who have developed underlying high-risk diseases,” adds Dr Stott.

However, it is the indirect health implications that are also of concern, as mental illness has seen a sharp spike since the implementation of a nationwide lockdown in March. Between a rise in suicides and suicidal ideation, depression, stress and burnout, the report suggests it has become a necessity for employers to provide the necessary psychological support employees require.

While there are still many unknown factors regarding the long-term health implications for COVID-19 survivors, there are already indications that the disease can cause permanent organ damage, which could lead to more requests for chronic care.

“Insuring one's health is critical especially in light of the direct mental and physical health effects that could indirectly lead to yet another wave of medical sector issues. With elective surgeries likely to be deferred to prioritise more urgent treatments - such as chemotherapy and other cancer treatments - this could also lead to a general fear of health checks, meaning other illnesses could go undiagnosed" - adds Dr. Stott.

The report further outlines that people with chronic illnesses might skip their vaccines and it will have significant impact on their lifespan: since COVID, 13% of HIV patients have put their antiretroviral treatments on hold. The UN is also concerned about children missing their scheduled vaccinations, because their parents are scared of taking them to the clinic in the fear of them contracting the virus.

Jewell says, “While we are not sure about exactly what the future holds, the virus carries with it an enormous amount of uncertainty for the lives of South Africans, but we are confident in our role of helping consumers navigate through this challenge.  This is our time to be counted and to be there for our clients.”

"At Liberty, we believe that it is during these unprecedented times that show the importance of being and staying insured, and that expert financial advice is critical to preserving and protecting one’s future financial health,” concludes Jewell.

Liberty Group Ltd is a licensed Insurer and Authorised Financial Services Provider (no 2409). 



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