Calls for changes to sick leave rules after survey finds staggering number of Kiwis have Long COVID-19

A nationwide study of Long COVID has found one in five participants experienced symptoms, and those who needed help were let down by the health sector. 

The study was co-led by Dr Lynne Russell and Dr Mona Jeffreys from Victoria University, who surveyed 990 kiwis who caught COVID-19 before December 1, 2021.

"About one in five reported Long COVID symptoms, such as fatigue, brain fog, shortness of breath, muscle aches, and joint pain," said Dr Jeffreys.

They estimate as many as 300,000 New Zealanders are likely to experience Long COVID but the risk was higher among people with pre-existing heart disease or a high body mass index. 

The survey also found many people with Long COVID symptoms felt there was a lack of understanding of the condition by health professionals.

"About half felt the healthcare they received wasn't adequate and reported not feeling listened to or understood," she said.

The study also revealed the impacts of COVID-19 have been worse for Māori, Pasifika and disabled people.

"We, along with other researchers, have found clear breaches of Te Tiriti o Waitangi in the Government's response to the pandemic," Jeffreys said. 

Key findings include:

  • Māori and Pasifika found it harder to see a GP when they had COVID-19 and they often couldn't afford prescription medication.
  • 75 percent of Pasifika and 62 percent of Māori reported anxiety or depression, compared with 56 percent of other participants
  • Since having COVID-19, 18 percent of Pasifika and 12 percent of Māori participants said their whanau was "doing worse", in comparison, just 2 percent of other participants said their whanau was "doing worse" 

Dr Jeffreys and Dr Russell said it's important for the ongoing Government COVID-19 response at all levels, and for any future pandemics, to be based on Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

"To ensure that all processes, decisions, management and monitoring approaches are responsive to Māori communities' lived realities", said Dr Russell. 

They're calling on the government to address their findings, and have made several recommendations including:  

  • Establish dedicated Long COVID clinics around the country
  • Recognise the condition as a disability
  • Significantly reduce barriers to primary healthcare, especially for Māori, Pasifika, and disabled people, to address inequities in health and wellbeing.
  • Develop a mental health plan to deal with the fallout from COVID-19, as well as future pandemics
  • Consider implementing income support policies for patients suffering from Long COVID.
  • Reconsider sick leave and employment support policies so people can take time off work when unwell

Emeritus professor Warren Tate from the University of Otago said the report shows equity was not at the forefront of the Government's planning, analysis, responses and policies with COVID-19.

"The pre- preparedness for such a public health crisis clearly did not have that degree of depth, and so day to day responses were made 'without an existing playbook", professor Tate said.

He also said Long COVID needs to be recognised as a disability so people can access the financial and practical support they need.

"People developing Long COVID have immediate needs for help from social services and financial services and need clearly easily accessible pathways to access these.

"They are debilitated from day one of their illness, most cannot work and need wide support," he said.