A continent of insomniacs, stressed out and prone to vices?

One of the assumptions acclaimed in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it left a mark on the mood and health habits of the world’s inhabitants, including those of Latin America. Along with the army of epidemiologists and health authorities that populated the media, countless diagnoses were also mobilized to warn about the impact of the spread of the virus and individual or domestic defensive practices on social mood and public health. In this regard, opinion polls played an essential role as a thermometer capable of translating some main predispositions and concerns of societies, and that allows us to understand what happened to us.

On a global scale, there was minimal variation in risk behaviors such as smoking or drinking alcohol, feelings of stress, badly came to change, and sleep quality remained almost intact when comparing data from the end of 2018 with data from the end of 2020 or 2021, at the height of the pandemic, according to the global polling series of the WIN and Market Analysis network of consulting firms.

For example, more than one out of four adults on the planet smoked heavily or with some regularity in 2018, and three years later, amid confinements, that percentage, instead of rising, fell slightly. The same was true of alcoholic beverage ingestion: it dropped from 43% before the pandemic to just under 38% during COVID-19 times.

Stress also showed no worsening, contrary to expectations: a year and a half before confinement was declared, it hovered around 30%; at the height of the quarantines it did not reach 33%, a variation close to the margin of error of the surveys. Finally, the perception of the personal health of each individual did not change either: it was 76% at the end of the last decade and between 77% and 79% between 2020 and 2021.

Does this mean that, in the end, there was no health and psychological cost despite the radical revolution in our practices during the two years of the pandemic?

It is obvious that this toll on social mood derived from the health emergency did exist and will persist, but not for everyone, and concentrated in certain groups and as a result of exposure to certain types of experiences during the pandemic. When examining how these indicators varied in regions such as Latin America, the aggregate average of some of these situations repeats the global picture.

Smoking, for example, fell from almost 30% in 2018 to 20% in 2021. Drinking alcohol declined from 45% in 2018 to 42% three years later. Sleeping poorly also followed a downward, not upward, direction. For its part, the feeling of physical vigor receded only slightly, and that of stress increased with the pandemic, albeit subtly.

The apparent innocuousness of the pandemic in the social mood and perception of physical and mental well-being in Latin America hides the ruin caused by the way in which certain governments are managing their responses to the crisis. When these numbers are disaggregated by country, the health tragedy emerges clearly. The worsening of the quality of health and conditions of personal wellbeing were greater in contexts where governments followed two types of patterns that most strongly disrupted the daily lives of their citizens.

One pattern is linked to the magnitude and persistence of the repressive approach to the normal execution of daily life. The societies that suffered the most restrictive measures such as unceremonious confinement, that were deprived of alternatives for channeling anguish and that saw their educational and social activities canceled (while the authorities themselves did not hesitate to violate the rules), are the ones that register sharp variations in indicators of quality of life and personal health.

In Argentina, for example, a country that led for months in the index of rigorousness of confinement, according to the Oxford University report, during a good part of 2020, the feeling of personal health fell twice as much as in all the Latin American countries that were studied. In addition, there was a sharp increase in the consumption of alcoholic beverages and a doubling of the stress rate, from 22% in 2018 to 42% in 2021.

Unable to channel anxieties due to the viral crisis, Argentines literally imploded, taking refuge in drinking and the exacerbation of feelings of vulnerability and anxiety, which stood out among their neighbors.

Unlike those maximum restrictions experienced by Argentines, Brazilians and Mexicans had much more autonomy of movement, options on how to provide for themselves, how to study and sociability situations.

This does not represent a compliment to governments that were incapable, if not openly irresponsible, in offering health protection to their compatriots. In fact, the open contradictions and contradictions in the management of the pandemic by Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil exempted its citizens from repressive practices as in Argentina, Chile or Peru, but exposed them to the risks of private, imprudent behavior, which spread insecurity among the majority of its inhabitants.

In this context, Brazilians are among the few who saw a decrease in the number of sedentary people between 2018 and 2021, as well as the feeling of stress, although they did increase their difficulties in sleeping (they presented the largest negative oscillation in the region).

The other adverse pattern occurs due to the ups and downs of decisions with openings, closings, new openings and new closings that disoriented the population and exacerbated their sense of lack of direction, insecurity and vulnerability. Oxford University’s government stringency index reveals that over the 2020-2021 biennium, Chile and Peru were the countries with the most marked back-and-forth in terms of restrictions.

As a result, Chileans reach the present with the worst numbers in terms of the deterioration of their perception of vigor and physical vitality. Burnout rates also stand out, rising 17 percentage points in three years. Peruvians, in turn, were more affected in their sleep than in their consumption of drink or tobacco, thus adapting to the oscillating and confusing management of the pandemic with its quarantines and liberalizations by means of a more sacrificial vigil.

Translated from Spanish by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva

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