COVID-19: impact on the deaf and hard-of-hearing communities
During the coronavirus pandemic, people with hearing loss – that is, both the deaf and hard-of-hearing communities – are particularly vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19. According to UN Secretary-General António Guterrez, “People with disabilities are among the hardest hit by COVID-19″1. According to the WHO, over 466 million people worldwide have disabling hearing loss2 — or over 1.3 billion people if you include mild hearing loss as well3 — so the impact of COVID-19 on this population demands attention.
In addition, the constant wearing of masks is an impediment to clear communication, particularly for persons with hearing problems. Among the population aged 60 and over, which is the group most affected by COVID-19, the majority has trouble communicating.
According to the WHO, 33% of persons over 65 have disabling hearing loss4. When hospitalized, even wearers of hearing aids lipread to understand the health care staff. COVID-19 has made this very hard to impossible because all caregivers are equipped with opaque masks. The same is true for workplace masking.
Health impact for people with hearing loss
According to a research report, more than 1 in 10 COVID-19 adults report a change in their hearing status, when questioned eight weeks after being released from hospital5. More research is needed in this area.
It is well documented that people with hearing loss are more at risk of depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. Indeed, “when people struggle to hear, communication can be challenging and loneliness, sorrow and social isolation can quickly follow”6. The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly increased social isolation, making people with hearing loss more vulnerable to depression and anxiety.
In an article published in the American Journal of Otolaryngology, patients in Italy with both COVID-19 and hearing impairments had problems understanding and communicating with the health personnel, especially in the emergency room. The report added that “face masks represent an ally in the fight against COVID-19, but a challenge for patients with hearing loss for two main reasons: they reduce acoustic transmission and prevent lip reading.”7
COVID-19 impact on hearing aid users
In our field work, as international organizations working around the world in countries like the Philippines, Zimbabwe, Peru and in remote areas of Canada, we have witnessed firsthand how people with hearing loss have been affected by COVID-19.
As a necessary response to COVID-19, governments around the world have put in place strict social distancing measures. For hard-of-hearing people who wear hearing aids, lack of access to hearing aid batteries during the pandemic has been a significant barrier to communication, leading to further social isolation from loved ones and caregivers. The average hearing aid user needs a minimum of 30 batteries per hearing aid per year; in many countries, hearing aid batteries are not easy to come by, especially for people who cannot buy them online.
Below are some of our measures to help:
- Shipping hearing aid batteries to homes using services such as Uber in places where the postal service has been limited due to the crisis. We are in touch with our clients to ensure that they have an ongoing supply of batteries.
- Creating educational videos for hearing aid users on how to ensure proper hygiene for their ear and hearing aid in the time of COVID-19.
Opaque face masks during COVID-19 can isolate the deaf and hard-of-hearing
Canada’s top public health official, Dr. Theresa Tham, has spoken of the unique barriers faced by Canadians with disabilities when pushing for more widespread use of face masks.8
The launch of Canamasq™, a breakthrough non-medical protective mask that solves common issues related to traditional face coverings, was meant as a solution. Above all, Canamasq helps users be more easily understood, thanks to its transparent mouth feature, heat-reducing technology and anti-fog coating; non-medical masks are those generally used by the public and do not require Health Canada certification.
“Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, people who wear face masks in professional settings have all said communication is difficult – with those hard of hearing, with children and with each other,” explained Audra Renyi, Founder and CEO of earAccess Inc.
“Canamasq solves the communication problem by making the mask wearer’s expressions visible through a polyethylene window so that older people and those hard of hearing can lip read, and children can be reassured by a smile,” said Renyi. “There’s no more need to shout, repeat yourself or lift your mask to make yourself understood.”
People with hearing loss urgently need solutions
UN Secretary-General recently added that although people with disabilities are the hardest-hit by the pandemic, “we have a unique opportunity to design and implement more inclusive and accessible societies to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals”.
Canamasq transparent face masks were specifically developed to respond to this challenge and ensure that people with hearing loss can read lips and receive the critical health care information they need from their caregivers, friends and family.
1Source: UN Press release. See: https://www.un.org/press/en/2020/sgsm20074.doc.htm.
2Source: WHO fact sheet. See: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/deafness-and-hearing-loss
3Source: Vos T, Allen C, Arora M, Barber RM, Bhutta ZA, Brown A, et al. Global, regional, and national incidence, prevalence, and years lived with disability for 310 diseases and injuries, 1990-2015: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2015. Lancet. 2016;388(10053):1545–602.
4Source: WHO fact sheet. See: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/deafness-and-hearing-loss
5Source: Munro, Kevin. International Journal of Audiology. July 3, 2020: Persistent self-reported changes in hearing and tinnitus in post-hospitalisation COVID-19 cases. See: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14992027.2020.1798519
6Source: Healthy hearing. See: https://www.healthyhearing.com/report/52437-The-complex-link-between-depression-and-hearing-loss
7Covid and hearing difficulties, American Journal of Otolaryngology. See: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7166300/