Throughout the pandemic, there has been much debate surrounding face masks, social distancing, vaccines, and the various measures used to combat the spread of the virus. So much so, that at times it feels the human cost of the pandemic is forgotten about. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) brought that cost into alarming perspective this week after announcing the average life expectancy in the U.S. dropped by a year and a half—the largest drop since World War II.
According to the Associated Press, the drop was even worse for Black and brown people, going down by three years. The average life expectancy for Black people is now 71 years and 10 months; the last time Black life expectancy fell so drastically was during the Great Depression. The CDC cited COVID-19 as the primary reason life expectancy has dropped. More than 3.3 million people died in 2020, the most of any year in U.S. history, with COVID-19 representing 11 percent of those deaths.
The CDC’s report also cites drug overdoses as being a significant factor in declining mortality for whites, with rising homicide rates representing a small but notable factor in mortality rates for Black people.
Other problems affected Black and Hispanic people, including lack of access to quality health care, more crowded living conditions, and a greater share of the population in lower-paying jobs that required them to keep working when the pandemic was at its worst, experts said.
Life expectancy is an estimate of the average number of years a baby born in a given year might expect to live. It’s an important statistical snapshot of a country’s health that can be influenced both by sustained trends such as obesity as well as more temporary threats like pandemics or war that might not endanger those newborns in their lifetimes.
For decades, U.S. life expectancy was on the upswing. But that trend stalled in 2015, for several years, before hitting 78 years, 10 months in 2019. Last year, the CDC said, it dropped to about 77 years, 4 months.
The CDC’s report found that while life expectancy went down by two years for men, it only went down by a year for women, widening an already longstanding gap. Historically, U.S. life expectancy has bounced back after significant drops, though experts warn that with COVID cases continually surging, that may take some years. Noreen Goldman, a Princeton University researcher, told AP News that “in 2021, we can’t get back to pre-pandemic” life expectancy.