by John Tozzi | bloomberg
Life expectancy in the United States fell by the most in seven decades last year as Covid-19 killed hundreds of thousands of Americans early.
The epidemic proportions on communities of color have also widened the current gap in life expectancy between white and black Americans, according to estimates released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The tally represents an extraordinarily grim accounting of an ongoing catastrophe. The first year of the pandemic dealt a bigger blow to American life expectancy than any year of the Vietnam War, the AIDS crisis or the “death of despair,” which reduced life expectancies in mid-2010.
“This is shocking and disheartening,” said Noreen Goldman, professor of demography and public affairs at Princeton University. “The US lags behind almost all high-income countries in life expectancy, and now it is even behind.”
The pace of Covid-19 deaths declined sharply as vaccination spread in the first half of 2021. But it is not clear how long it will take to reverse life expectancy. The US has recorded a total of 609,000 Covid deaths since the pandemic began. Over 43% happened in 2021, with almost half a year to go.
Americans’ life expectancy at birth dropped 1.5 years to 77.3 years in the first year of the pandemic. This wiped out the country’s gains since 2003. This was the largest annual decline since 1943 in the middle of World War II. Goldman said it was the second biggest decline since the 1918 influenza pandemic, which is believed to have killed some 50 million people worldwide.
The fall in the 2020 pandemic widened the distance between the US and other wealthy democracies such as France, Israel, South Korea and the UK, according to research recently published in The BMJ Journal.
“It’s not the decline that happened in other high-income countries, so something went terribly wrong in the US, where the number of Americans dying was much higher than it needed to be,” said Steven Woolf, director emeritus. The Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University and the BMJ one of the study’s authors.
Life expectancy is a statistical structure that reflects the death rate at a given place and time. The CDC report describes life expectancy at birth as “how many years a group of infants would live if they experienced prevalent age-specific mortality rates during a period throughout life.” It is not meant to predict the actual life span that people born in that period will experience. Rather, it is a way of comparing mortality rates in different geographic areas and years.
Covid accounted for three-quarters of the fall in 2020. Unintentional injuries, a category that includes record fatal drug overdoses for 2020, also pulled down the measure, as did homicide, diabetes and liver disease. The decline would have accelerated if it had not been offset by fewer deaths from other factors, including cancer, chronic lower respiratory disease, heart disease and suicide.
All demographic groups saw a decline in life expectancy in 2020. But the droplets were not evenly distributed. Men lost more land than women. Hispanic Americans, who have longer life expectancies than white or black Americans, recorded the biggest losses during COVID, with a full three-year decline in life expectancy, doubling the rate for the entire nation.
Similarly, black Americans reported a 2.9 year reduction in life expectancy. That decline widened the gap between black people and white people in America, a disparity in life expectancy that had been shrinking since the 1990s. The life expectancy of white Americans has dropped by 1.2 years in 2020.
“There is no biological reason for people of a certain skin color to die at higher rates of the virus,” Woolf said, noting that the disparate effect reflects structural disparities.
Goldman said the skewed representation in frontline jobs such as retail, meatpacking, transportation and health care, along with higher rates of chronic conditions, put people of color at increased risk of being exposed to and dying from Covid.
He said unequal access to health care, language barriers and overcrowded or multi-generational housing also contributed to the virus’ disproportionate toll on Hispanic and black populations.
Estimates published by the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics reflect death certificate figures reported by states and cities. The report did not include data on populations of Asian Americans, American Indians, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders.
As alarming as a one-year drop in life expectancy in 2020 is alarming, Woolf said more attention should be paid to the decades-long gap in life expectancy that has reduced more American lives than Covid.
In the 20th century, life expectancy increased in generally wealthy countries as science and sanitation helped conquer infectious diseases. In the US, there are troubling signs that the country was not keeping pace with the gains of other countries in the measure that emerged in the 1990s. This deviation became known as the American health loss.
“The more important issue than the rapid phenomenon we’re seeing in life expectancy right now is the long-term trend,” Woolf said. “It’s actually more scary than what we’re reporting for 2020 for America, as strange as it may sound.”
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