Losing a Year of Lifespan in the First Half of 2020

Bathing of a BabyThe lifespan expected for a baby born in America during the first half of 2020 dropped by a year, compared to what it was in 2019. But for a Black child, the drop in life  expectancy (2.7 years) was more than three times worse than for a White child (0.8 years). Life expectancy for a Hispanic child dropped by 1.9 years.

This bad news comes from a CDC report on provisional life expectancy estimates for the first half of 2020.

Disparities Widen

Make no mistake. This is bad for everyone. But it is devastating for racial and ethnic minorities. Disparities in health – due to systemic racism – were already stark.

This is terrible news for the cause of heath equity. For twenty years, the gap in life expectancy had been narrowing between Black and White Americans. The first half of 2020 reversed all of those gains. The new estimates tell us that the gap in life expectancy is now six years – the worst it has been since 1998.

Elizabeth Arias is lead author of the CDC report. Commenting on the widening gap between Black and White life expectancy she said:

“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 [overall] in decades.”

More Than COVID-19

COVID-19 is certainly what precipitated these disastrous shifts in life expectancy. But COVID is not the whole story. Deaths due to drug overdoses were dropping until the middle of 2019. But in late 2019, they had begun to rise again. Then, in the first half of 2020, they rose sharply and erased all of the improvements that had been made in 2018.

Other major causes of death ticked up in the pandemic. Age-adjusted death rates for diabetes rose by 16 percent. For heart disease, they were up by four percent. Note that until recently, we have been enjoying a steady decline in deaths due to heart disease.

One exception was cancer death rates, which declined by a little less than four percent.

Indifference Kills

Perhaps the most appalling reaction we have heard in the midst of the pandemic is that “these people were going to die soon anyway.”

Such thinking is worse than callous. It reflects indifference that is deadly. Such indifference allows people to rationalize the suffering of others, to devalue life. It allows us to accept deep disparities in health and waver in our resolve to overcome this pandemic.

These numbers cannot be glossed over because they reflect the lives of precious people. Rev. Semmeal Thomas of the City Covenant Church in Detroit sums it up in terms of personal losses he has experienced:

“If Covid had not come, Ruthie Harris would still be here, Jackie would still be here, Michael would still be here, Taisha would still be here. It has given us, in the African-American community, this tremendous sense of grief.”

Click here for the CDC report on life expectancy, here for stats on overdose deaths, and here for stats on other death rates. For further reporting, click here and here.

Bathing of a Baby, painting by Marc Chagall / WikiArt

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February 19, 2021

2 Responses to “Losing a Year of Lifespan in the First Half of 2020”

  1. February 19, 2021 at 11:42 pm, Chester Draws said:

    The lifespan expected for a baby born in America during the first half of 2020 dropped by a year, compared to what it was in 2019.

    But the actual lifespan for of a child born in 2020 is going to be exactly the same as one born in 2019, on average. Tell me how they can possibly be different.

    Some statistics, like life expectancy, are just that statistics. They are a measure, but they have little intrinsic meaning. He’s a useful statistic, the average number of testicles for babies born in 2020 is one. True, but meaningless.

    “Expected” lifespan will rise back up when Covid goes and the racial disparity that it has caused will probably go too. In the meantime the actual lives of babies born will be unaffected.

    • February 20, 2021 at 4:35 am, Ted said:

      Thanks for that example of a useless statistic regarding testicles, Chester. However, death rates and life expectancy are something quite different. They might be something that doesn’t interest you. But for measuring population health, they are quite important. Your suggestion that COVID will simply disappear and leave us none the worse for wear is unfortunately false.