China Daily (Hong Kong)
Life expectancy falls in US as pandemic hits
Minorities are hardest hit, with black Americans nearly losing three years
Life expectancy in the United States fell by a full year, with African-Americans losing nearly three years and Hispanics falling almost two years as the death toll from COVID-19 approaches half a million people, a government report said on Thursday of the first six months of the pandemic in 2020.
The preliminary estimates were released in a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC. The data show life expectancy — the most basic measure of the health of a population — at birth in the US fell in 2020 by one year to 77.8 years, the lowest since 2006 and the largest drop in life expectancy in the country since World War II.
“This is a huge decline,” Robert Anderson, who oversees the numbers for the CDC, told The Associated Press. “You have to go back to World War II, the 1940s, to find a decline like this.”
Life expectancy for black people declined the most in 2020 by 2.7 years to 72 years — the lowest since 2001. Latinos experienced the second-biggest decline, falling 1.9 years since 2020 to a life expectancy of 79.9 years, lower than when it was first recorded in 2006.
The figure for white people slipped 0.8 year to 78.
The preliminary report did not analyze trends for Asian or Native Americans.
“I knew it was going to be large, but when I saw those numbers, I was like, ‘Oh my God’,” Elizabeth Arias, the federal researcher who produced the report, told The New York Times of the racial disparity. “We haven’t seen a decline of that magnitude in decades.”
The life-expectancy gap between black and white people, which had been narrowing, is now at six years, the widest since 1998. The disparities highlighted in the study add to mounting evidence of COVID-19’s disproportional impact on blacks and Latinos, health experts said.
Other health experts said the decline in life expectancy shows the impact of COVID-19 not just on deaths directly due to infection, but also from heart disease, cancer, drug overdoses as well as other diseases that accompanied the outbreak.
“What is really quite striking in these numbers is that they only reflect the first half of the year. I would expect that these numbers would only get worse,” Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, a health-equity researcher and dean at the University of California, San Francisco, told The Associated Press.
Unlikely to persist
The life-expectancy drop is not likely to persist because deaths from the virus are easing, and the population is slowly getting vaccinated, the health experts said.
The last time a pandemic caused a major decline in life expectancy was 1918, when hundreds of thousands of Americans died from the flu pandemic.
Life expectancy declined by 11.8 years from 1917 to 1918, Arias said, bringing average life spans down to 39 years. But it fully rebounded the following year as deaths eased.
Life expectancy represents the average number of years that a newborn is expected to live if current death rates do not change. Declines in developed countries are rare, but the US experienced them from 2014 to 2017 as the opioid epidemic took its toll. Before that, demographers had not seen a decline since 1993, during the AIDS epidemic.
Even if such a rebound occurs, the social and economic effects of COVID-19 will linger, researchers said, as will the disproportionate effects on black and Latino communities, health experts said.
“It was disturbing to see that gains that have been made for the black community and decreasing the gap between life expectancy for African Americans and (white) Americans over the past six years had come to a halt,” Leon McDougle, president of the National Medical Association, told USA Today.
Mary Bassett, a former New York City health commissioner, told the Times that unless the country better addressed inequality, “we may see US life expectancy stagnate or decline for some time to come”.