A new federal report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has revealed a stark disparity on how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted life expectancies for white, Hispanic and Black Americans between 2019 and 2020. According to the CDC, the overall life expectancy in the United States fell by a year and a half, but when broken down into racial segments, Hispanic Americans suffered the highest drop in life expectancy at three years, with Black Americans just behind at 2.9 years.
Julie Bosman, Sophie Kasakove and Daniel Victor of The New York Times have reported that the drop in life expectancy was “the steepest decline in the United States since World War II.”
“Life expectancy numbers provide only a snapshot in time of the general health of a population,” the Times reported. “If American children born today spent their entire lives under the conditions of 2020, they would live an average of 77.3 years, down from 78.8 in 2019.”
According to the Times reporters, several factors contributed to the drop in life expectancies for Hispanic and Black Americans when compared to white Americans, from access to consistent and adequate healthcare to their likelihood of employment in “risky, public-facing jobs during the pandemic — bus drivers, restaurant cooks, sanitation workers — rather than working on laptops from the relative safety of their homes.” Furthermore, Black and Hispanic Americans are much more likely to depend on public transportation or live in a multigenerational home with tighter conditions, both scenarios raising the risk for coronavirus exposure and spread. Finally, the initial issue of access to COVID-19 vaccination has been overtaken by pervading vaccine hesitation, both of which federal and local governments have yet to address effectively.
Many of these factors also apply to Asian and Indigenous populations in the United States. However, the CDC report did not include data for these two racial segments due to “the impact of race and ethnicity misclassification on death certificates for these populations on the precision of life expectancy estimates.”
While COVID-19 had a considerable impact on the recent drop in life expectancy in the United States, David Leonhardt of The New York Times noted that the pandemic wasn’t necessarily the only contributing factor.
“Even before the pandemic, the U.S. was mired in an alarming period of rising mortality,” Leonhardt wrote. “American society has become far more unequal than it used to be, and the recent increases in mortality are concentrated among working-class Americans, especially those without a four-year college degree.”
Citing a study written by Princeton University economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton, the drop in life expectancy can also be attributed to a surge in what they refer to as “deaths of despair” — from drugs, alcohol and suicide, as well as health-related mortalities stemming from untreated diabetes and strokes that have also surged among working-class individuals.
The Times’ reporters said that although life expectancy did plunge in 2020, precedence says the drop isn’t likely to be permanent; life expectancy during the 1918 flu pandemic had fallen by an astounding 11.8 years, only for the rate to rebound the following year.
That said, Dr. Elizabeth Arias, one of the researchers from the CDC report, said life expectancy rates would unlikely bounce back anytime soon because returning to pre-2019 numbers would require no more excess COVID-19-related deaths.
“That’s already not possible in 2021,” Dr. Arias said.