Researchers say COVID created largest life expectancy decrease since WWII

life expectancy decrease, COVID life expectancy
© Algimantas Barzdzius

According to Oxford University researchers, COVID created the largest life expectancy decrease since WWII – with 93.1% of countries seeing a significant decline

COVID-19 is synonymous with death in all countries across the world.

In some places, death and hospitalisation are more severe than in others. Some countries, especially in the Global South, still await a steady supply of COVID vaccines. In the meantime, these countries are bracing for incoming waves of tragedy.

There is no doubt that the virus has changed how people work and made visible the extent of social deprivation – which led to disproportionate deaths in poor communities, working low-wage jobs. There is a mental health and domestic violence shadow pandemic, an undercurrent of indirect deaths via missed appointments, and a newly bloomed kernel of fear in the general population about proximity to strangers.

But what about life expectancy?

When world-shaping tragedies occur, they carve time out of human lives. If not immediately, in the shape of death counts, hospitalisations and lasting symptoms – then invisibly, a promise of changed health to come.

Life expectancy is like taking the temperature of the world as it stands, then understanding how long a newborn could theoretically live based on current mortality conditions. The mortality impact of COVID across various countries has been measured in this study, which drew data from 29 countries.

Dr José Manuel Aburto, the study’s co-lead author, said: “For Western European countries such as Spain, England and Wales, Italy, Belgium, among others, the last time such large magnitudes of declines in life expectancy at birth were observed in a single year was during WW-II.”

In other world-shaping tragedies like the Bengal Famine of 1943, a lack of access to food meant that the conditions of living long no longer existed. Bangladesh is still struggling with life expectancy to this day.

93.1% of countries took a hit on life expectancy

The research team at Oxford’s Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science found that mortality in 27 out of 29 countries, 93.1% of the data, showed reductions in life expectancy directly due to COVID.

Among these countries, the US, Chile, and most of Europe.

Co-lead author, Dr Ridhi Kashyap, further explained: “The large declines in life expectancy observed in the US can partly be explained by the notable increase in mortality at working ages observed in 2020. In the US, increases in mortality in the under 60 age group contributed most significantly to life expectancy declines, whereas across most of Europe increases in mortality above age 60 contributed more significantly.”

For some countries, their efforts in building up a better life expectancy were completely erased.

Dr Alberto, explaining how the data changed, said: “22 countries included in our study experienced larger losses than half a year in 2020. Females in eight countries and males in 11 countries experienced losses larger than a year.

“To contextualize, it took on average 5.6 years for these countries to achieve a one-year increase in life expectancy recently: progress wiped out over the course of 2020 by COVID-19.”

it took on average 5.6 years for these countries to achieve a one-year increase in life expectancy recently

The biggest changed were for men in the US and Lithuania. Men in the US took a decline of 2.2 years in contrast to 2019 levels of life expectancy, while men in Lithuania took a decrease of 1.7 years on average.

These results are largely from Global North countries too – the research team used officially published death counts from each country they worked on this time around. They ask for Global South countries to publish data too, so they can create a clearer picture of how COVID hit those countries.

Read the full journal article here.


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