Covid-19 Drives Largest Decrease In US Life Expectancy Since 1943

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Covid-19 has widened the life expectancy gap across racial groups and between the US and similar countries. Lives were lost because “so many decisions were driven by politics and ideology,” researchers say.

US life expectancy decreased by 1.87 years between 2018 and 2020, a drop not seen since World War II, according to research published in the The BMJ, a journal published by the British Medical Association.

The numbers are even worse for people of colour. On average, whereas life expectancy among white Americans decreased by 1.36 years in 2020, it decreased by 3.25 years in Black Americans and 3.88 years in Hispanic Americans.

Other countries also saw declines in life expectancy between 2018 and 2020, but the loss of life expectancy in the US was 8.5 times that of the average for 16 peer countries. The declines for minority populations were 15 to 18 times larger than other countries.

“When the pandemic came, my naïve assumption was that it would not have a big impact on the pre-existing gap between the US and peer countries,” said Steven Woolf, the study’s lead author.

“It was a global pandemic, and I assumed that every country would take a hit. What I did not anticipate was how badly the U.S. would fare in the pandemic and the enormous death toll that the US would experience,” he added.

The US death toll has surpassed 600,000, according to Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Centre. Excess deaths, which exceed the official count, may contribute to the impact of the pandemic, according to previous research led by Woolf.

Life expectancy trends in the US were already “very worrying, the gap has been widening for some time ” Woolf said.

Since the 1980s, improvements in life expectancy in the US have not kept pace with peer countries. Around 2010, life expectancy in America plateaued and then decreased for three consecutive years. It continued to climb in other countries.

Then Covid-19 hit, and the United States had among the world’s highest per-capita mortality rates. Black and Hispanic communities were hit harder than white populations. Woolf’s paper is the first to show the significance of the widening life expectancy gaps. Previous reports only included data from the first half of 2020 and did not provide the comparison to peer countries.

“To give some perspective, when the decline in life expectancy was happening a few years ago, it was a decrease of about 0.1 years each year that was making front-page news. That’s the kind of increase or decrease that we’re accustomed to each year,” said Woolf.

Woolf called the 1.87-year decline in life expectancy “massive” by comparison.

“It’s like nothing we’ve seen since World War II, 1943 was the last time the US had such a large decrease in life expectancy,” he said.

Six countries in the authors’ comparison group saw their life expectancy increase during 2020 – places like New Zealand, Finland and Norway. Other countries did poorly, Italy and Spain saw losses in life expectancy. But none came close to the US.

“The disorganized handling of the pandemic in the US had a lot to do with governance. Our Constitution delegates public health authority to states, so we had 50 response plans. Many lives were lost because so many decisions were driven by politics and ideology. Covid-19 exposed a lot of the systemic problems that have been fuelling the long-term decline in the health of Americans,” Woolf said.

“And when vaccination gets us past the pandemic, and COVID-19 is in the rear view mirror, those systemic issues will still be with us,” he added.

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Written by

Deirdre Tynan

Deirdre Tynan is an award-winning journalist who enjoys bringing the best in news reporting to Spain’s largest English-language newspaper, Euro Weekly News. She has previously worked at The Mirror, Ireland on Sunday and for news agencies, media outlets and international organisations in America, Europe and Asia. A huge fan of British politics and newspapers, Deirdre is equally fascinated by the political scene in Madrid and Sevilla. She moved to Spain in 2018 and is based in Jaen.


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