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Spain and China used very different public health responses to the COVID-19 crisis, and that has had significant consequences in terms of the mental health as well as physical health of the two countries’ citizens, Roger Ho, MD, reported at the virtual congress of the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology.
Ho, a psychiatrist at the National University of Singapore, presented a first-of-its-kind cross-cultural comparative study of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in two epicenters on opposite sides of the world. A total of 1,539 participants drawn from the general populations in the two countries completed the online National University of Singapore COVID-19 Questionnaire. The survey was conducted in late February/early March in China and in mid-April in Spain, times of intense disease activity in the countries.
The questionnaire assesses knowledge and concerns about COVID, precautionary measures taken in the last 14 days, contact history, and physical symptoms related to COVID in the last 14 days. The pandemic’s psychological impact was evaluated using the Impact of Event Scale–Revised (IES-R). Participants also completed the Depression, Anxiety, and Stress-21 Scale (DASS-21).
Of note, the pandemic has taken a vastly greater physical toll in Spain than China. As of May 5, there were 83,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in China, with a population of 1.39 billion, compared with 248,000 in Spain, with a population of 46.9 million. The Spanish case rate of 5,500 per 1 million population was 100 times greater than China’s; the Spanish mortality rate of 585 per million was 185-fold greater.
Spaniards experienced significantly higher levels of stress and depression as reflected in DASS-21 subscale scores of 14.22 and 8.65, respectively, compared with 7.86 and 6.38, in Chinese respondents. Spanish subjects also reported greater anxiety levels than the Chinese on the DASS-21 anxiety subscale, although not to a statistically significant extent. Yet, counterintuitively, given the DASS-21 results, the pandemic had a greater adverse psychological impact on the Chinese subjects as reflected in their significantly higher average IES-D score of 30.76 versus 27.64 in Spain. Ho offered a hypothesis as to why: The survey documented that many Chinese respondents felt socially stigmatized, and that their nation had been discriminated against by the rest of the world because the pandemic started in China.
Spanish respondents reported less confidence in their COVID-related medical services.
“This could be due to the rising number of infected health care workers in Spain. In contrast, the Chinese had more confidence in their medical services, probably because the government quickly deployed medical personnel and treated COVID-19 patients at rapidly built hospitals,” according to Ho.
Spain and other European countries shared four shortcomings in their pandemic response, he continued: lack of personal protective equipment for health care workers, delay in developing response strategies, a shortage of hospital beds, and inability to protect vulnerable elderly individuals from infection in nursing homes.
Experiencing cough, shortness of breath, myalgia, or other physical symptoms potentially associated with COVID-19 within the past 14 days was associated with worse depression, anxiety, and stress scores in both China and Spain. This underscores from a mental health standpoint the importance of rapid and accurate testing for the infection, Ho said.
Significantly more Spanish respondents felt there was too much unnecessary worry about COVID-19, suggesting a need for better health education regarding the pandemic.
Consistent use of face masks regardless of the presence or absence of symptoms was far more common in the Chinese epicenter, where, unlike in Spain, this precautionary measure was associated with significantly lower IES-R and DASS-21 scores.
“One of the important findings in our study is that wearing a face mask seems to protect the mental health in China, but for the Spanish, wearing a face mask was associated with higher IES-R scores,” Ho said. “We understand that it is difficult for Europeans to accept the need to use masks for healthy people because mask-wearing suggests vulnerability to sickness and concealment of identity. The Chinese have a collective culture. They believe they should wear a face mask to protect their health and that of other people.”
Ho reported no financial conflicts regarding his study, conducted with coinvestigators at Huaibei (China) Normal University and Complutense University of Madrid.
SOURCE: Ho R. ECNP 2020, Session ISE01.
This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.