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Obesity: A Complex Problem in Times of Pandemic—Part I

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Mauricio Covarrubias
June 10, 2022

The complexity of the problems that affect society is related to the process of social construction that determines which issues are assumed to be public problems and what defines them as such. Of course, complexity is inherent in the material nature of problems as they involve multiple causes and variables. But also, problems are complex because they challenge the traditional structures of organization and action of governments (functional, spatial and temporal) which determine the way in which they address problems and conceive solutions.

In other words, in addition to the “social construction,” there is also a kind of “governmental construction” of problems, which in many ways does not correspond to the nature and dynamics of current social phenomena, which increasingly overwhelm the policy silos, jurisdictional boundaries and cycles of government.

Obesity as a complex problem

In the field of health, obesity is an example of such complexity. It is a multifactorial social problem, whose geography does not respect territorial jurisdictions and involves causes, consequences and long-term processes. More than a sudden shock, obesity is the result of a long process of social change that has escalated in intensity, size and duration, affecting more and more places and people.

As a public health problem, obesity can be considered as part of a web, where multiple causes and risk factors converge, contributing to its rapid growth in recent decades, to a point where today it is considered an epidemic of global proportions.

According to Obesity Action Coalition (OAC), obesity is simultaneously a risk factor for other conditions since it is related to more than 200 additional complications or health problems, including some chronic illnesses such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease (OAC, 2020).

COVID-19 advanced lesson on interdependence and vulnerability

COVID-19 has served as one of the most effective and impactful teachers of our time. The microscopic pathogen of about 0.000125 millimeters has given us an advanced lesson on systems approach, complexity and interdependence to the more than 7.8 billion people on the planet. Perhaps some of us had already learned this lesson intellectually, but with the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus we learned experientially, in a dramatic way, that we are part of the same global health network, connected socially, economically and environmentally.

COVID-19 has also reminded us that ignoring the human fundamental condition of interdependence has led us to design institutions and policies that completely fail at times like this. In his book “Catalytic Leadership: Strategies for an Interconnected World”, Jeffrey S. Luke points out that the problems are intertwined through innumerable circuits, and they interact with each other very often and in unpredictable ways. The existing level of interconnection means that changes in any one place can spread quickly, unexpectedly affecting the entire system.

Due to globalization, Walker, Marchau and Kwakkel assert that the consequences of making incorrect political decisions have become more serious and global, even potentially catastrophic. Additionally, Daniel Innerarity and Javier Solana write about the “epidemic nature” of contemporary society characterized by contamination, contagion, instability, linkages, turbulence, shared fragility, universal affectation and overexposure. All these phenomena are part of the dark side of the globalized world and increase human vulnerability.

Obesity and COVID-19, concurrent complex phenomena

In this scenario, the phenomena interact and reinforce each other, catalyzing and exacerbating their effects, just as occurs with the interaction of the COVID-19 pandemic and the obesity epidemic. While the pandemic is defined as the global spread of a new disease, the World Health Organization (WHO) refers to obesity as “globesity” an escalating global epidemic of overweight that is taking over many parts of the world.

In this respect, Hébert, Scarpino and Young argue that the interaction of diseases results in very complex patterns of aggravation and spread. Under the so-called “simple” dynamics, it is generally accepted that the predicted size of an epidemic will be proportional to the rate of transmission. However, the presence of one more epidemic in the population can dramatically change the dynamic from simple to complex. As COVID-19 has shown, once this occurs, microscopic changes in transmission rate trigger macroscopic jumps in expected epidemic size.

Thus, the novel coronavirus pandemic aggravated obesity due to confinement, but also its effects, because obesity increases the risk of infectious diseases having serious consequences. This became evident with the worldwide spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

There are two major changes that occur when people are quarantined and stay home, unable to practice normal life. Yaseen Galali observed that the first change includes a more sedentary lifestyle due to restrictions on travel and sports. The other change pertains to eating behavior. During the lockdown, there was limited access to fresh food and people turned to more processed foods that were high in calories and low in nutrients.

To be continue.


Author: Mauricio Covarrubias is Professor at the National Institute of Public Administration in Mexico.  He is co-founder of the International Academy of Political-Administrative Sciences (IAPAS).  He is the founder and Editor of the International Journal of Studies on Educational Systems (RIESED). Coordinator in Mexico of the TOGIVE Project: Transatlantic Open Government Virtual Education, of the ERASMUS + Program of the European Union. Member of the National System of Researchers of CONACYT.  He received his Ph.D. from the National Autonomous University of Mexico.  He can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @OMCovarrubias

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