Is COVID Really to Blame for the Recent Drop in American Life Expectancy?

The number has been headed in the wrong direction for years

life expectancy america
Huy Phan/Unsplash

The National Vital Statistics System (NVSS) shared some deeply upsetting news last week: in the first six months of 2020, the average life expectancy in the United States fell by an entire year. Federal researchers were shocked by the precipitous drop — one federal researcher said to The New York Times, “I knew it was going to be large but when I saw those numbers, I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ We haven’t seen a decline of that magnitude in decades.”

It’s the largest downswing since eight million Americas were sent to fight in WWII, and it’s a direct result of the global pandemic. By the end of June 2020, nearly 125,000 Americans had died from COVID-19. That was enough to bring the total population life expectancy down to 77.8 years old, the lowest level since 2006. Here at the end of February 2021, half a million Americans have died. In the short-term, life expectancy will only continue to drop.

Over time, though, as we push towards mass vaccination and herd immunity, the numbers should right themselves. (Life expectancy dropped an insane 11.8 years during the 1918 pandemic, before rapidly rebounding.) The larger issue is that even once these numbers “level out,” America is still 46th in the world in life expectancy; it’s the only wealthy country in the world where the most basic marker of population health is going down.

Consider: in the three years before the pandemic arrived, life expectancy in the United States was already going down. The main culprits? The opioid crisis, obesity and suicide. Americans between the ages of 25 and 64 have been dying at alarming rates for years now. The trend is proof that longevity has little to do with GDP (e.g. we’re just behind Cuba, Estonia, Lebanon on the life expectancy chart) and everything to do with affordable housing, equitable healthcare, and a mental health infrastructure that encourages long-term happiness.

Not to mention, there’s a serious underlying racial inequality at play. Black and Hispanic populations each saw a more extreme drop (compared to white Americas) in life expectancy last year, due to the pandemic. Those populations are more likely to live in overcrowded housing, work in punitive, low-wage jobs and struggle to pay for healthcare. Even before the pandemic, though, these Americans were likely to die sooner than others — and they were also likely to die sooner than their poor counterparts in other countries.

It’s been said and written countless times, but it remains true: the lessons we’ve learned from the COVID-19 crisis must remain with us beyond the “end” of the pandemic. It’s difficult to fathom that we needed 500,000 Americans to die for us to reckon with injustices that have been present in this country for years, but here we are.

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