In developed countries, this long period of self-isolation has caused waistlines to bulge — a serious matter, especially since obesity is a clear COVID-19 risk factor.
There's a heaviness to the pandemic that's weighing people down, including in a very literal sense. Here in Canada, polls show that some 40% of the population gained weight since mid-March.
The issue isn't, of course, limited to this country. Nor is there one single explanation for why some people have put on a few extra kilograms of late. But governments are choosing to act now, during the pandemic, to raise awareness among their citizens.
Leading the way is the government of Great Britain, where public initiatives include a ban on television and online junk food advertising before 9 p.m. Restaurant menus will also be required to display calories, while over-the-top marketing campaigns for calorie-heavy foods will have to stop: No more chocolate bars near cash registers that encourage impulse buying.
British authorities are even considering a requirement that calories be displayed on alcoholic products. The "Better Health" campaign, as it's known, will be introduced with expanded weight management plans to serve citizens, and will run for nine months.
But governments are choosing to act now, during the pandemic, to raise awareness among their citizens.
The timing of the campaign is no coincidence: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson — who lost more than 6 kgs (13 lbs) after suffering a life-threatening COVID-19 infection last May — acknowledged that overweight people are more likely than people of average weight to contract the virus. About 60% of Britons are overweight, including the prime minister himself.
The food and drink industry was quick to react by saying that the initiative was a good thing, even though this kind of campaign isn't to everyone's liking, since certain products are intentionally targeted. Some companies claim that the program is unfair and prevents the British from enjoying themselves.
Here in Canada, research suggests that about 25% of the people have used self-isolating as an opportunity to change their habits and adopt healthier behaviors. But there's also evidence that more than half of the population has had more difficulty staying healthy during this period.
Either way, the "Great Quarantine" — aside from the stress it caused — has changed our habits. While it is important to stay active to successfully lose and maintain weight, it is also essential to improve diets, as most people consume more calories than they need. Snacks and sales of alcoholic beverages are increasing throughout the West.
Along with nationwide mass advertising, the British campaign will specifically target areas and groups most affected by obesity. Evidence shows that Black, Asian and minority communities are disproportionately affected by obesity and COVID-19.
The British government's effort should be acknowledged for going much further than any other campaign of its kind. First, it is timely, given the pandemic and its impact on certain demographic groups. The program addresses the taboo of obesity, an important factor in the prevention of COVID-19. It is also the first time a health-oriented program has interfered with the way products are sold in stores without using a regressive tax.
Yes, retailer revenues will be affected. But the program will only last nine months. The same goes for advertising and media revenues. But again, these measures are intended to be temporary. It is a kind of pilot project, and one that will no doubt cost the British state a lot of money for advertising and promotion.
Either way, the "Great Quarantine" — aside from the stress it caused — has changed our habits.
Paradoxically, the announcement of the British approach came just 10 days after the same government spent roughly $750 million on restaurant discounts to encourage its citizens to go out more. Every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday in August, every citizen will be entitled to a savings of $15 a day every time they visit a restaurant. Any restaurant can participate in the program, even fast-food restaurants where calorie-filled and unhealthy products are sold in abundance. In this regard, there's a glaring lack of consistency.
In Canada, certain practices are already in place: For example, the number of calories is displayed next to each dish on menus. A next and necessary step is to publicly admit that our population is too fat and even fatter than before.
We should use our COVID-19 public service announcements to encourage people to exercise more and lead active lifestyles. True, the importance of protecting oneself should not be overlooked, but it's also a good opportunity to share a more positive message — while giving Canadians a welcome light push.
*Sylvain Charlebois is a Professor in food distribution and policy in the Faculties of Management and Agriculture at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada.
**This article was translated with permission from the author.