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Toronto: Countries that attempted to control COVID-19 transmission with stricter public restrictions had worse mental health outcomes than those which tried to suppress or eliminate COVID-19 transmission, according to a study published in The Lancet Public Health journal.

The team led by researchers at Simon Fraser University in Canada used data from two surveys of 15 countries between April 2020 and June 2021.

Countries were grouped into two categories: those that sought to eliminate COVID-19 transmission and those that aimed to mitigate or reduce the spread of the virus within the country.

Eliminator countries include Australia, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea. Mitigator countries include Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and the U.K.

Eliminator countries such as South Korea and Japan implemented early and targeted actions, such as international travel restrictions, which resulted in lower levels of COVID-19 infections, fewer deaths and less negative mental health impacts compared to mitigator countries.

Mitigator countries such as Canada, France and the UK were less strict about travel and relied more on physical distancing, gathering restrictions and stay-at-home requirements, the researchers said.

These measures restricted social connections and were associated with greater psychological distress, lower life evaluations and a lower opinion of the government compared to people living in eliminator countries, they said.

“Governmental responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have been widely debated,” said Lara Aknin, psychology associate professor at Simon Fraser University.

“At first sight, it may seem that eliminator countries implemented much harsher strategies than other countries because of their widely reported international travel bans. But, in reality, people within these borders enjoyed more freedom and less restrictive domestic containment measures overall than citizens in mitigator countries,” Aknin added.

The researchers noted that effective policies to contain the pandemic must be accompanied by strategies and resources to address the adverse impacts on mental health.

For future pandemics, they suggest governments could prioritise policies that reduce virus transmission but impose fewer restrictions on daily life, such as restricting domestic travel instead of restricting gatherings.

The researchers suggest that an elimination strategy, with timely use of testing and contact tracing could minimise deaths without requiring more restrictive policy measures to contain viral spread.

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