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Obesity: A Complex Problem in Times of Pandemic: Part II

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

By Mauricio Covarrubias
July 8, 2022

Obesity has many intensifying effects, for example, being overweight is a significant predictor of developing complications from COVID-19, including the need for hospitalization, for intensive care and for mechanical ventilation. Being overweight is also a major risk factor for death from COVID-19. These increased risks have been found after adjusting for age, ethnicity, income and other demographic and socio-economic factors. According to a report by the World Obesity Federation, in countries where less than half of the adult population is overweight, the likelihood of death from COVID-19 is a small fraction—around one tenth—of the level seen in countries where more than half the population is classified as overweight.

Mexico and the United States: Two countries especially vulnerable to Covid-19

Along with Brazil, India and Russia, Mexico and the United States are among the first five places in the official number of deaths from COVID-19.  One of the explanations has to do with underlying conditions related to obesity, including: cardiovascular disease, chronic kidney disease, diabetes and hypertension, which influence the risk of developing severe COVID-19.

Obesity is the perfect breeding ground to reduce the resistance of those who suffer from it against the coronavirus. “Literally, being overweight weighs us down, obesity weighs us down populationally, and today we are facing a covid-19 epidemic with these prolonged ravages of poor nutrition,” acknowledged Hugo López-Gatell, the official responsible for managing the pandemic in Mexico.

With more than 30 percent of their populations affected, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) places the United States and Mexico in first and second place in the world in terms of their obesity rate, that is, people with a BMI (Body mass index) greater than 30 percent. Both countries have the dubious honor of being at the top of the world ranking of countries with the highest rate of obesity among adults.

A stress test for the way in which policies are formulated

The effects of the conjunction of COVID-19 and obesity were exacerbated by the way governments responded. The coronavirus pandemic affected almost every nation in the world, with results as variable as the response of each government. It has become common to say that the pandemic has been a stress test for governments and their institutions. COVID-19 exposed both the strengths and weaknesses of the kind of institutional capacities that are considered essential in crisis situations.  

The epidemic exposed the vulnerabilities of many health systems, as well as the lack of effectiveness of policies on obesity followed in recent decades. Many lives could have been saved had governments taken earlier action to implement integrated policies that help prevent and manage obesity.

The problem that Mexico, the United States and Brazil faced in the pandemic, which together with India and Russia occupy the first places in the official death toll (all of them federal countries), was also due to governance failures and serious leadership errors that fueled the spread of the virus, exacerbating the loss of human life.

The factors responsible for successful pandemic responses, according to Francis Fukuyama, have been state capacity, social trust and leadership. Countries with all three—a competent state apparatus, a government that citizens trust and listen to and effective leaders—have performed impressively, limiting the damage they have suffered.

As Daniela Allen argues, in times of crisis, a government’s duty is to lead the public through a process of diagnosing the problem and identifying a shared plan for solving it. This is fundamentally an act of public education. The presidency is the foremost teaching platform in the country.

As was evident in the cases of Mexico, the United States and Brazil, presidential leadership failed at critical moments of the pandemic. Slow and reluctant response to warnings about the virus, carelessness and lack of preparation, partisan polarization, uncoordinated actions between levels of government, an apparent lack of political will to launch meaningful actions aimed at curbing the crisis and its effects and even quackery by promoting the cure of diseases by means that do not have scientific support, were some of the revealing features of the presidential leadership. Thus, the people with the greatest power to educate the public and motivate the whole country behind a common purpose, declined to use that power.

That being said, one of the greatest lessons that the pandemic has taught us is about leadership. Various studies agree that what made the difference was the national leadership that knew how to mobilize wills and gave rise to unified and coordinated policies. If unity of action is essential under normal conditions, it is even more so in a crisis. A crisis needs to mobilize the participation and resources of all sectors within the government, but also of society.

Will our leaders and governments learn from their mistakes?

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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