May 2020

COVID-19, Crisis & Emotional Stress

Human health may be understood best from a biocultural perspective, one that include all aspects of human ecology in terms of biology, behaviour, thinking, and beliefs. On 02 April 2020 in the USA a freight train driver purposefully derailed his train to destroy the hospital ship Mercy sent to help with the COVID-19 crisis.  The train driver said he did it because he believed the Mercy was part of suspicious activities involving the coronavirus. Also, during the first week of April, 5G cellular communication towers in Birmingham, Liverpool and Melling, UK were burned by people claiming that 5G technology is the cause of COVID-19. Such things always happen during pandemics. In the year 1630, a Bubonic Plague epidemic erupted in Milan, which also was at war with Spain. Four Spaniards in Milan were arrested, convicted of spreading Plague, and sentenced to death by torture. During the Plague pandemic of 1349 the people of Strasbourg, Alsace accused Jews of poisoning the water wells. One thousand Jews were arrested, taken to the cemetery and burned alive. These cases and others of paranoia and murder during pandemics are described by medical historian Frank M Snowden in his book, Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present (2019, Yale University Press).

Fear of pandemic disease spreads as fast and as deep as the disease itself. The fear plays-out in in many ways, from extremes of paranoia and violence, to xenophobia, closed borders, economic lockdowns, and social distancing. The fear pervades every level of society—those in poverty suffer the most in material terms and even the wealthiest 1% live with the insecurity of stock markets and oil prices. The fear causes emotional stress. Chronic emotional stress—from insecurity that lasts for months or years—has biological impact on people.

Several colleagues and I have been investigating the impact of chronic emotional stress on human growth. In one series of studies we analyse changes in birthweight related to the 2008 economic crisis in Spain. We report a decline in birthweight across virtually all social-economic groups in Spain in the years leading up to, and especially, during the economic crisis. We interpret the findings in terms of economic insecurity and emotional stress caused by the crisis and the economic and social austerity that governments imposed during and since the crisis. Our findings are supported by studies in other counties that economic insecurity and maternal emotional stress reduce growth both before and after birth. Research published since 2018 explains lower birthweight and slower growth of infants and children as due to an excessive production of maternal stress hormones. In the short-term, stress hormones help our bodies to heal from illness, bone fractures, and adverse emotional events. But, in the long-term, chronic elevation of stress hormones damages our bodies, slows the growth of bones, reduces our stature, and makes our bodies fatter.

Birthweight is one of the key predictors of health risks at birth and later in life. The consequences of low birthweight include greater risk for infection, poor learning and school performance, greater risk for psychological problems, reduced adult earnings, greater risk for adult overweight, diabetes, and heart disease, and, on average, an earlier age at death. Birthweight is under very strong stabilizing selection—not too low and not too high — and is therefore a key human biological characteristic and one that continues to drive human evolution. The current COVID-19 crisis is biocultural in nature, with major and immediate social, economic, and emotional impact.  It will take two or more generations to assess the biocultural consequences of the current crisis on people—from foetuses to the aged. One may hypothesize that there will be a global rise in maternal emotional stress and a decline in birthweight for the immediate future.


Barry Bogin is Professor Emeritus of Biological Anthropology at Loughborough University, UK, and Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at University of Michigan-Dearborn, USA, and a Member of the University of California San Diego/Salk Institute Center for Academic Research and Training in Anthropogeny (CARTA), USA. The third edition of his essential book Patterns of Human Growth will be published by Cambridge University Press in the next months. Some of the studies on the impact on birthweight related to the 2008 economic crisis in Spain are Is the economic crisis affecting birth outcome in Spain? Evaluation of temporal trend in underweight at birth (2003-2012) (2016) Low birthweight prevalence among Spanish women during the economic crisis: Differences by parity (2020) y Social disparities in Low Birth Weight among Spanish mothers during the economic crisis (2007-2015) (2018).

Li Zhong is president of the Artist Association of Fengxian District, Shanghai (China). An interview with Li Zhong and a series of paintings on the fight in China against the COVID-19 pandemic area is available in Painting an epidemicA recent interview with Frank M Snowden is available on Talk Radio Europe.