The novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) has continued to cause significant and unprecedented changes in the world since it was first reported in China in December 2019 (PAHO/WHO, 2020).
The extent of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to raise public health concerns regarding its impact on the physical and mental health of individuals and entire societies due to socioeconomic effects, fear of contracting the virus, and the stressful challenges of adapting everyday activities (UN, 2020).
In the Region of the Americas, several countries with high vac- cination coverage as of 8 August 2021 are reporting a rise in cases and hospitalizations with the appearance of the Delta variant of con- cern (VOC) (PAHO/WHO, 2021). The emergence of the Delta VOC in the Region makes it necessary for Member States to be aware of the importance of preparing to expand their capacity for care, given the potential increase in alcohol, tobacco, and other substance use.
Alcohol, tobacco, and other substances are often used in socializing and coping with negative emotions. Since anxiety, fear, depression, boredom, and uncertainty were commonly reported during the initial phase of the pandemic and are expected to increase as the countries of the Region prepare to respond to the Delta VOC, the use of these substances is expected to increase as well.
Use of these substances (alcohol, for example) gives rise to many acute and chronic health risks. It is identified as a causal factor in more than 200 diseases, resulting in 5.1% of the global burden of dis- ease and injuries, measured in disability-adjusted life years (DALY) (PAHO/WHO, 2020). Heavy drinking is associated with a higher risk of a weakened immune system, increasing an individual’s suscepti- bility to various infectious diseases, including COVID-19, and the severity of the diseases (PAHO/WHO, 2020). Continuing analysis of the data on substance use during the pandemic and the harm it causes has shown that prolonged use of these substances (i.e., alcohol and tobacco products) increases the risk of acute respiratory distress syn- drome (ARDS). One of the most severe complications experienced by patients diagnosed with COVID-19 (PAHO/WHO, 2020), ARDS puts individuals with a history of prolonged heavy drinking at higher risk of death if they contract the infection.
In its 2020 publication, PAHO reported that heavy drinking is a significant risk factor for mortality and morbidity in the Region of the Americas. Alcohol consumption levels in the Region are higher than the world average, and male and female abstinence rates are systematically lower. With regard to the burden of disease, it was reported that heavy drinking is the secondary cause of approximately 379,000 deaths (6.5% of all deaths) and more than 18.9 million DALYs in the Region of the Americas (PAHO/WHO, 2020). The findings presented in this publication also showed that men in the Region consumed more alcohol than women did, although the alcohol consumption rate among women in the Region now exceeds that of men (Rodrigo García-Cerde, 2021).
Since many people in the Region continue to exhibit symptoms of psychosocial stress (tension, sleep disorders, and anxiety) stemming from the pandemic, many may take to drinking or heavy drinking to cope with the situation (PAHO/WHO, 2021). It is therefore vital for Member States to be aware that certain groups may be at higher risk of developing a drinking problem. Special groups, such as older persons, essential workers, parents with children, people closely connected with someone critically ill with COVID-19, and people with major depression, anxiety, or positive emergency impulsivity, may need additional monitoring while the world continues to fight this pandemic.
PAHO/WHO. (2021). Epidemiological Update. Increase of the Delta variant and its potential impact in the Region of the Americas. Washington, D.C.: Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization.
PAHO/WHO. (2021). What is associated with the increased frequency of heavy episodic drinking during the COVID-19 pandemic? Data from the PAHO regional web-based survey. Washington, D.C.: PAHO.
Reynolds, J. (2020). Accessibility of ‘essential’ alcohol in the time of COVID-19: casting light on the blind spots of licensing?. Drug Alcohol Rev. Drug Alcohol Review, 305-308.
Garcia-Cerde, R., Valente, J.Y. (2021). Alcohol use during the COVID-19 pandemic in Latin America and the Caribbean. Pan America Journal of Public Health, 1-11. UN. (2020). COVID-19 and violence against women and girls: Addressing the shadow pandemic. New York: United Nations.
Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the mental health of the population
The mental health of health workers during the COVID-19 pandemic
How do we provide care without neglecting ourselves? Psychosocial interventions for prehospital care teams
Psychological first aid, key to coping with Tropical Storm ETA and Hurricane IOTA in Honduras
Coordination in mental health: a priority in emergencies
PAHO participation in the VII Regional Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in the Americas and the Caribbean (PR21)
Strengthening the mental health response and psychosocial support in the COVID-19 pandemic
Launch of the “Mental Health Now - Share Your Story” campaign
Stronger Together Campaign 2020
Mental health literacy is the way forward, say Jamaican educators
The mental health response to COVID-19 Case of the British Virgin Islands
Caribbean countries receive training to improve coordination in mental health during emergencies
Alcohol, tobacco, and other substances in the COVID-19 pandemic