It’s been three years since the COVID-19 pandemic transformed the way we work, ushering in flexibility and shifting the balance of power from employers to employees. But the labour market faces even more transformation as long COVID threatens to take people out of the workforce, which could end up bruising the economy, experts warn.
Post-COVID-19 condition (PCC), or long COVID, has the potential to create “significant impacts on the labour market and the Gross Domestic Product (GDP),” says Dr. Mona Nemer, Canada’s chief science adviser, in a report released March 9. As of August 2022, the condition has impacted more than 1.4 million people who have COVID-19 symptoms lasting for three months or longer, according to Statistics Canada. That amounts to 4.6 per cent of those aged 18 or older, with women more likely to develop the condition than men.
As the coronavirus continues to circulate, the number of people affected is only expected to grow, and the consequences for people’s lives — not to mention the economy — are frightening. “PCC has the potential to become a mass-disabling event,” Nemer says in the PCC task force report.
Long COVID can be debilitating, and include crushing fatigue, cough, shortness of breath, pain and cognitive dysfunction, such as brain fog or memory loss, and anxiety and depression. PCC can also mimic immune system disorders such as chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia.
Some people end up recovering completely, but many others do not, and there’s no way to know who will be affected long term. Symptoms can last from four months to years, and doctors think some PCC sufferers may never recover at all. To make it even more difficult, the recovery isn’t linear and symptoms may come and go, exacerbated by exercise, stress or mental effort. That can make holding down a job feel next to impossible for those afflicted.
“PCC affects the ability to work and perform daily tasks, creating considerable consequences for individuals and communities,” Nemer says. “The economic burden of PCC and the implications of the labour market in Canada could be profound.”
Canada doesn’t have much research on how long COVID is affecting our labour market, but data from other countries, such as the United States and United Kingdom, are filling in the gaps. For example, disability claims are on the rise in the U.S., especially among women, and experts think long COVID is to blame. As a result, labour shortages are expected to get worse in sectors that employ mostly women, such as education, health care and hospitality.
PCC is also having broader impacts on the U.S. labour market, and researchers estimate that millions of Americans have been forced out of work. As of August 2022, 16 million people between the ages of 18 to 65 in the U.S. had long COVID, and two to four million had to stop working, according to the World Economic Forum. That amounts to billions of dollars in lost earnings. “The annual cost of those lost wages alone is around US$170 billion a year (and potentially as high as US$230 billion),” the World Economic Forum says.
The economic impact could be even more staggering, Harvard University researcher David Cutler says. The economist thinks long COVID could shave US$3.7 trillion from the U.S. economy due to lost wages, decreasing quality of life and medical costs. And even then, Cutler calls his estimates “conservative.”
The U.K. is also feeling the strain. In December, 600,000 working-aged people had gone inactive in the labour market since 2020 as a result of long-term illness, according to the country’s Office for National Statistics, pointing to long COVID. Impacts are expected to be similar in other developed economies, the Canadian task force report says.
For now, data on Canadian labour market impacts is scarce. But a 2022 survey of 1,050 COVID-19 “long-haulers” by VineX, an organization that studies how viruses affect the brain, suggests the consequences could be severe. Eighty per cent of poll respondents said their symptoms had a “negative or very negative” impact on their brain function, and more than 70 per cent said they had to take a leave from work as a result. Some were forced to completely exit the workforce.
Disappearing staff is one issue, but so is lost productivity from workers with PCC who stay on the job. “People who are going to work are not able to produce at their previous level,” Inez Jabalpurwala, global director of VineX, said in a podcast interview last year. “The brain in a knowledge-based economy is our asset. If that asset is compromised, it absolutely has an impact on our ability at the workplace to be creative, to be resilient, to contribute our full brain function.”
That’s bad news for employers who are already dealing with staffing shortages and disengaged workers. To add to that, employers face extra costs from an increase in long-term disability and medical benefit claims stemming from COVID-19. For example, diabetes claims among young people have markedly increased since the pandemic began. Researchers say people who have had COVID-19 could be at a higher risk of developing certain health conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke and more. Insurers are also shelling out more for mental health claims and in 2021, insurers paid out $580 million, up 45 per cent from 2020 and 75 per cent from 2019, says the Canadian Life & Health Insurance Association.
If Canada wants to mitigate PCC’s impacts on lives and the economy, it will need to make some changes, the task force report says. It’s calling for increased research, better management of long COVID care and treatment, and investment in prevention measures, such as improving ventilation in workplaces and schools. In response, Ottawa on March 9 committed an additional $29 million to invest in research and medical supports, and says it will review the recommendations laid out in the report.
It seems clear that more needs to be done to support those suffering with PCC. But prevention is also important. The pandemic might feel like it’s over to those of us who have resumed our lives after recovering from COVID-19. But research shows that as long as the virus and its variants circulate, long COVID remains a credible threat. That should be a wakeup call for all of us.