Life as we know it has changed dramatically for most people over the last year as we’ve all had to adjust to a new normal. With the one year mark of the global coronavirus pandemic approaching, that means it’s also been almost 12 months of near-isolation from our loved ones; working from home if you’re lucky; and a massive shift in day-to-day consumption.
“This is a huge decline,” Robert Anderson, who oversees the data for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told the Associated Press. “You have to go back to World War II, the 1940s, to find a decline like this.”
According to the report, life expectancy for the entire U.S. population fell to 77.8 years old — the lowest it’s been since 2006. But the study also highlighted racial disparities, with life expectancy for Black people falling three times as much as it did for white people, and by twice as much for Hispanic people.
Throughout the pandemic, COVID has hit Black and Latinx communities the hardest, which was the primary driver for the drop in life expectancy. To make matters more complicated, as the COVID-19 vaccine rollout started in early January, Black people have received vaccinations at dramatically lower rates than white Americans, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. This was mostly due to distrust of America's notably racist medical system, which lacks accessibility to Black communities and neighborhoods across the country.
The racial disparities in deaths caused both directly by COVID and as a result of living during the pandemic draw a clear line to longstanding, systemic racism in healthcare. While some people believed in the earlier months of the pandemic that COVID affects everyone equally, that couldn’t be farther from the truth as Black and Brown communities have carried a particularly heavy burden.
“We were aware of these longstanding health disparities, but this really drives home how the Black and Latino communities were disproportionately affected,” Theresa Andrasfay, a researcher at the University of Southern California told CNN.
The psychological toll on people living in further isolation — which was not explicitly named in the report — was also a factor in decreased life expectancy, as deaths from drug overdoses simultaneously appeared to be on the rise. Deaths from overdoses had been on the decline the year prior, but climbed in the first half of last year, according to The New York Times.
“If you'll recall, in recent pre-pandemic years there were slight drops in life expectancy due in part to the rise in overdose deaths, National Center for Health Statistics (NCHC) spokesperson Jeff Lancashire explained to NPR. “So they are likely contributing here as well but we don't know to what degree. COVID-19 is responsible for an estimated 2/3 of all excess deaths in 2020, and excess deaths are driving the decline.”
The rising numbers of overdoses are associated with the higher rates of drugs like heroin and cocaine being cut with fentanyl, paired with a lack of access to treatment during to the pandemic. The Times reports that the rise in overdoses has also disproportionately affected Black and Latinx adults — specifically men.
Before the pandemic, life expectancy in the U.S. had not increased significantly over the last decade compared to other countries, and specifically other so-called high-income countries, STAT reported. Nonetheless, a loss of an entire year of life should point to the heavy weight this pandemic has taken on people’s lives.
As Eileen Crimmins, a professor at the University of Southern California, told CNN, “A year of life expectancy lost doesn't really give you a true sense of how serious this has been. Millions of life years were actually lost.” Crimmins added, “Covid is on track to cause more deaths than cancer or heart disease, and that's important.”
And still, the data doesn’t paint a full picture just yet of the toll COVID has taken, as it is focused on the first six months of the pandemic, which primarily affected people living in urban areas. In all, it's taken more than just life away from us.