Rebuilding in the Wake of the Pandemic Must Include Rebuilding the Health of Our Country
COVID-19 exacted a heavy, wide-ranging toll on our nation, but the time to rebuild and recover has mercifully arrived. Yet, many aspects of our society were already badly in need of repair before the pandemic. COVID highlighted and exacerbated those problems. One major challenge that we must address as a country is improving our nation’s health.
Our country faces health-related problems that take many forms, including mental, nutritional and physical. In each of these areas, research tells us that we must act to reduce or eliminate significant barriers to good health, especially when it comes to young people.
For example, research shows that every year about one in six Americans between the ages of 6 and 17 experience a mental health disorder. We also know that half of all cases of mental illness begin by the age of 14. In particular, early childhood mental health challenges can persist into adolescence and adulthood, leading to problems with education and behavior that can have lifelong consequences, including criminality. Those consequences can negatively impact the long-term trajectory of a child’s life.
Nutritional health is also a significant concern, particularly with rising rates of childhood obesity. These rates were already high pre-COVID, but the situation has worsened: as of August 2020, the rate of obesity among Americans aged 2-19 was 22%. Malnutrition manifesting as obesity is often caused by food insecurity, which is the condition of being without reliable, consistent access to nutrient-rich food. Beyond the negative impact food insecurity has on health, research has also demonstrated a link between food insecurity in childhood and a higher likelihood of behavioral problems and misconduct later in life.
Finally, as lockdowns and sports cancellations created fewer outlets for exercise, physical activity likewise dropped among our youth. As of 2017, only 26% of high-school students participated in daily physical activity for at least an hour. The pandemic closed off even more avenues for regular physical activity. Decades of research have shown that a lack of regular physical activity can increase the likelihood of numerous health challenges, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, certain types of cancer, being overweight or obese.
The mental, nutritional, and physical well-being of our nation is of great concern to me, both as an American, and as a retired Air Force general who sees a significant recruiting challenge that will impact our military preparedness for decades.
Those concerns are why I joined Mission: Readiness, a membership organization of retired admirals and generals dedicated to strengthening national security by ensuring that kids stay in school, stay fit, and stay out of trouble.
For over a decade, Mission: Readiness has highlighted the significant damage that ineligibility can do to our country’s long-term national security. The retired flag officers who make up our membership have expressed support for numerous evidence-based policies and practices that can work to make American youth prepared for any career path they choose, including military service. The major disqualifiers that lead to 71% of Americans of prime recruiting age being ineligible — excess body weight, academic issues or involvement with crime or drugs — all connect directly or indirectly to health.
As we pivot to a post-pandemic recovery, rebuilding the health of our nation must take center stage. Poor mental health is a growing problem that impacts thousands upon thousands of young Americans. Nutrition issues have led to increased rates of obesity among young people for decades. Finally, young Americans have become increasingly sedentary and a lack of exercise poses numerous health risks.
In all of these cases, COVID acted as a catalyst to worsen and deepen these challenges. We must react to the increased urgency created by the pandemic’s effects and address health-related issues head on and immediately.
Federal, state and local investments in evidence-based programs that sustain and improve the mental, nutritional and physical health of our young people will pay dividends for decades, and will make our country stronger and more secure in the long run.
Retired Air Force Major General Mike Hall served as commissioner of the New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs between 1992 and 1995 and is currently a member of the nonprofit Council for a Strong America’s Mission: Readiness team. You can follow his organization on Twitter @Mission_Ready.