Soon, as the rates of coronavirus deaths and infections plummet, we’re likely to focus more on those who suffer what is being called ‘long Covid’ — yet the truth is we know very little about what precisely it is. Long Covid began as a quiet murmur in the background: anecdotal stories about symptoms which extended beyond the predicted 14-day recovery time. There’s no agreed definition, so it’s hard to say how many sufferers there are, but a survey from the Office for National Statistics suggests it affects as many as one in ten of those who have had the virus. As the second wave retreats, the number of people left with long Covid may exceed those currently infected with the virus itself. Yet there was no acknowledgement of the virus’s longer-term impact in the government’s roadmap out of lockdown.
The symptoms people report are too complex to tick any simple diagnostic box. One review highlighted 55 different long-term effects, ranging from skin rashes and palpitations to kidney pain and organ damage. But by far the most common are fatigue, ‘brain fog’ and breathlessness, often so severe that even walking can be difficult. Long Covid seems to wax and wane in severity from day to day. The Zoe app, in which millions of Covid-19 patients enter their symptoms, estimates that while one in seven still suffer after a month, only 2 per cent do so after three months. The app’s creators believe this is an underestimate — but given that a million people had Covid on any one day during the past month, the numbers are still significant.
There are two distinct long Covid groups. The first is those who were hospitalised and take months to recover from the ordeal (including, sometimes, intubation). Almost a third of them are readmitted within five months, often with illnesses affecting the lungs and heart.