Two categories of disease are interacting within specific populations—infection with severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) and an array of non-communicable diseases (NCDs). These conditions are clustering within social groups according to patterns of inequality deeply embedded in our societies. The aggregation of these diseases on a background of social and economic disparity exacerbates the adverse effects of each separate disease.
The author says that syndemic nature of the threat we face means that a more nuanced approach is needed if we are to protect the health of our communities. A syndemic is not merely a comorbidity. Syndemics are characterised by biological and social interactions between conditions and states, interactions that increase a person’s susceptibility to harm or worsen their health outcomes. In the case of COVID-19, attacking NCDs will be a prerequisite for successful containment.
As recently published NCD Countdown 2030 showed, although premature mortality from NCDs is falling, the pace of change is too slow. The total number of people living with chronic diseases is growing. Addressing COVID-19 means addressing hypertension, obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular and chronic respiratory diseases, and cancer. Paying greater attention to NCDs is not an agenda only for richer nations. NCDs are a neglected cause of ill-health in poorer countries too.
As Singer and colleagues wrote in 2017, “A syndemic approach provides a very different orientation to clinical medicine and public health by showing how an integrated approach to understanding and treating diseases can be far more successful than simply controlling epidemic disease or treating individual patients.” I would add one further advantage. Our societies need hope. The economic crisis that is advancing towards us will not be solved by a drug or a vaccine. Nothing less than national revival is needed. Approaching COVID-19 as a syndemic will invite a larger vision, one encompassing education, employment, housing, food, and environment.