The Fast Pandemic Meets the Slow Pandemic

By Nancy E. Roman, President and CEO, Partnership for a Healthier America

Date: July 14, 2020

Taking Temperature

COVID-19 has met America’s chronic disease burden and the result is clearly tragic: more than 130,000 dead – the vast majority of whom suffered from diet-related disease. Patients with diabetes or heart disease were hospitalized six times as often and died 12 times as often as those without, according to a recent Washington Post report. Tragically, we now know the nation’s death toll falls starkly along racial and economic lines – disproportionately impacting minority communities, as this New York Times report demonstrates.

“A fast pandemic on top of a slow pandemic,” is the way Dariush Mozaffarian described it to HBO’s Bill Maher. The second he said it, I knew I would be borrowing the metaphor because the word “pandemic” captures a sense of gravity that our many communications efforts have failed to capture with “diet-related disease burden,” “obesity and associated causes,” or “chronic conditions.” In other words, this pantheon of bland phrases allows us to minimize a public health crisis that is really, yes, “a slow pandemic.”

The word “pandemic” means “a disease prevalent throughout an entire country, continent, or the whole world; epidemic over a large area.” No definition better applies to obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease – the underlying conditions most likely to result in death by COVID-19.

Consider that at least 555,000 people have died globally from COVID-19, according to Johns Hopkins University. Yet, in the U.S. alone, 647,000 Americans die annually from heart disease (including heart attacks, stroke, and coronary artery disease), according to the CDC. That’s one in four deaths. Another 80,000 die annually from diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association.

Of those suffering under the slow pandemic (people with diabetes, high blood pressure, or heart disease), 20% died. That’s versus only 1.6% of deaths among people without those conditions.

We now know that diabetes and heart disease are not only tragic diseases unto themselves, they clearly predispose those with them to worse outcomes from COVID-19 and likely other conditions.

That’s why at PHA we are working hard to transform the food landscape in pursuit of health equity. We as a nation cannot continue to encourage a food culture that drives a slow pandemic and its devastation.

As government, the private sector, and nonprofits alike look ahead to the food system needed to truly build health, here are the opportunities PHA sees:

1. Creating affordable retail access for better-for-you foods:

Through our COVID-19 Fresh Food Fund, PHA has piloted direct distribution of fresh fruits and vegetables to communities in need. Anecdotally, we’ve seen significant demand among the communities we’re serving for affordable access to fruits and vegetables long-term, an opportunity for the private sector and retailers to innovate and find ways to meet this demand while benefiting public health.

2. Leveraging distribution innovation from COVID-19:

One of the exciting developments I’ve seen through COVID-19 is the SNAP Online Purchasing Pilot, which enables SNAP-eligible families to utilize those resources for online purchasing. Like most innovations, this was driven by necessity – the drive of online food purchasing has certainly been rapid during COVID-19 – but the opportunity to drive greater access to better-for-you foods is significant. We should be doubling down on increasing distribution and access in all forms, using any means necessary.

3. Enhancing cognizance of nutrition and immunity:

As Dariush described to Bill Maher, the deadly convergence of diet-related disease and COVID-19 has further unveiled the public health crisis of our food supply. If ever there was a wake-up call to shift the landscape of food, this is it. Never again (we hope) will there be a singular national or global reference point, as we have in COVID-19, for the need to build health through food. We should be using this moment to incentivize marketing dollars and government resources toward foods that build health and immunity, not just to foods that provide comfort and contribute to disease.

We may never see a moment of universal awareness of the importance of food for long-term health again. So we must leverage this moment for change.