Public health and sport: Build Back Fairer

Public health and sport: Build Back Fairer

This year has been incredibly challenging for both sport and public health. Grassroots sport is suffering financially, community projects have been cancelled and international tournaments postponed whilst public health teams have been stretched to their limits managing the direct and indirect effects of COVID-19. But as we head into the festive period we reflect on the highs and lows of 2020 and how we can build back fairer in 2021.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had wide-ranging public health and economic consequences for countries across Europe. The sheer magnitude of the disease has been almost overwhelming at times and continues to challenge political, economic, health and social institutions internationally.

Much of this last year has been focussed on cutting lines of viral transmission and thereby controlling the spread of the pathogen. Various states of lockdown have been imposed by governments, mask-wearing has become the norm and social distancing is just one of several terms that has entered our collective lexicon.

All of these measures have had a negative, knock-on effect on the sports and physical activity sector. There has been no grassroots sport for long periods and much-needed community health projects have been delayed or even cancelled. Consequently, countries across Europe have seen a fall in activity levels associated with reduced opportunities for team sports and exercise as well as general guidance advising us to stay at home and limit social contact.

Large international tournaments such as UEFA EURO 2020 and the Olympic Games in Tokyo have also fallen victim to the pandemic and have been postponed until 2021. Many of UEFA’s Member Associations and National Olympic Committees and indeed many other organisations in professional sport have suffered financially due to disrupted schedules.

But whilst the COVID-19 pandemic has developed at pace, and the sport and physical activity sector has responded swiftly, another pandemic has been quietly undermining efforts to protect vulnerable populations, such as the elderly or individuals living with underlying health conditions.

So-called non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as heart disease, hypertension, chronic respiratory conditions, type 2 diabetes, obesity and various cancers, combined with pockets of inequality and deprivation that are deeply embedded in our societies, have created just the right conditions for the virus to thrive.

To tackle the virus effectively and to protect against future pandemics, we need to tackle NCDs and significantly lower levels of health inequalities. Healthy Stadia has undertaken a great deal of work on a policy level, helping sports stadia introduce No Smoking policies across Europe and also on a community level, building capacity in community sports organisation to deliver physical activity and weight loss interventions such as EuroFIT. But with many countries around the world facing deep economic recessions associated with pandemic responses, and spiralling health costs, how do we do this?

There have been many calls for sport and physical activity to return and to return quickly in order to ‘build back better’ to help protect both physical and mental health. But this risks returning us to the status quo that is marked by a lack of investment in sport and physical activity, stagnation of health improvement for the most deprived people, and widening health inequalities. Before we jump the starting pistol, we need to reflect on the role of sport and physical activity in society, how it is funded and how it can help us build back fairer.

Looking ahead to 2021

In response to the global financial crisis in 2007-2008, many governments in Europe, either of their own volition or at the behest of the international financial institutions, adopted stringent austerity policies. Ultimately, this led to local and national budget cuts which have had long-term consequences for both health systems and provision of sport and physical activity.

We are now a point in time when we need to re-mobilise entire population groups that have undertaken very little activity due to lockdown measures, not just to boost their physical and mental health but to improve social connectedness and to develop resilient communities that are resistant to the effects of pandemics and economic shocks alike. Whilst there is certainly a need for innovation to limit the spread of the virus, sustained investment is needed in facilities, coaches and training to strengthen the role and impact of preventative public health.

As a sector, we also need to advocate for closer cooperation with national and regional public health agencies . Whilst there has been an increasing focus on delivering health outcomes through sport and physical activity, community sports organisations require a much greater understanding of health and wellbeing and greater emphasis on meeting the needs of different population groups, rather than providing a universal service.  To do this, sports coaches will need to be educated on lifestyle risk factors which underpin many NCDs and become proficient in the use of goal-setting, motivational and other behaviour change techniques.

Urgent attention also needs to be given to the secondary and perhaps even tertiary consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, various lockdown conditions and anticipated economic recession. Many clubs and community sports organisations and indeed sports stadia have already stepped forward to support their fans and local communities, including those made more vulnerable by the pandemic, assisting efforts by local and national government to slow the spread of the virus. These acts of community and solidarity have ranged from practical help with shopping and running food banks, to telephone befriending and staffing helplines and assisting with mass testing regimes.

Addressing the psychological harm from COVID-19 must also be a priority. Many individuals will come through the pandemic without lasting negative effects on their mental health, whilst others will be seriously affected by traumatic experiences. These may include but are not limited to COVID-19 disease, lockdown conditions, and also changing household dynamics associated with mental ill health, heavier drinking, problem gambling, loss of income and incidences of domestic violence amongst others. Appropriate responses need to be designed to be   and address gender-based, racial, and social inequalities to ensure that the health gap is narrowed not widened.

Sport and physical activity organisations and workforce have a huge role to play in providing opportunities to exercise and socialise but also to improve health and reduce health inequalities. These efforts must be supported by sufficient funding, partnership working with public health and strong leadership and governance that is aware of the social and commercial determinants of health. Without this, it will be difficult to build back fairer.

Healthy Stadia recently submitted evidence to the UK Government’s “Inquiry: Sport in our Communities” putting forward the case for sport and public health to be better integrated, for increased investment in grassroots sport and to support the sports sector to build capacity in community sports organisations to support health and wellbeing outcomes and improve community resilience. You can read our full response here: 

Michael Viggars

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