US life expectancy plunged in 2020, widening a racial gap
By Julie Bosman, Sophie Kasakove and Daniel Victor
New federal data draws one of the starkest illustrations to date of how the coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately affected Hispanic and Black Americans, showing that they suffered a far steeper drop in life expectancy in 2020 than white Americans.
Overall, life expectancy in the United States fell by a year and a half, a federal report said Wednesday, a decline largely attributed to the pandemic that has killed more than 600,000 Americans.
It was the steepest decline in the United States since World War II.
From 2019 to 2020, Hispanic people experienced the greatest drop in life expectancy — three years — and Black Americans saw a decrease of 2.9 years. White people experienced the smallest decline, of 1.2 years.
The coronavirus “uncovered the deep racial and ethnic inequities in access to health, and I don’t think that we’ve ever overcome them,” said Dr. Mary T. Bassett, a former New York City health commissioner and professor of health and human rights at Harvard University, who characterized the findings as devastating but unsurprising. “To think that we’ll just bounce back from them seems a bit wishful thinking.”
Life expectancy numbers provide only a snapshot in time of the general health of a population: 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.
The last time life expectancy was so low was in 2003, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, the agency that released the figures and a part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Racial and ethnic disparities have persisted throughout the pandemic — a reflection of many factors, including the differences in overall health and available health care between white, Hispanic and Black people in the United States. Black and Hispanic Americans were more likely to be employed 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.
They also more commonly depend on public transportation, risking coronavirus exposure, or live in multigenerational homes and in tighter conditions that are more conducive to spreading the virus.
The precipitous drop in 2020, caused largely by COVID-19, is not likely to be permanent. In 1918, the flu pandemic wiped 11.8 years from Americans’ life expectancy, and the number fully rebounded the following year. But Elizabeth Arias, one of the researchers who produced the report, said life expectancy was not likely to bounce back to prepandemic levels anytime soon.
Returning the life expectancy numbers to those of 2019 would require having “no more excess death because of COVID, and that’s already not possible in 2021,” Arias said.
Beyond that, she said, the effects of the pandemic on life expectancy, especially for Black and Latino people, could linger for years. (The report noted changes in life expectancy only for white, Hispanic and Black Americans.)
“If it was just the pandemic and we were able to take control of that and reduce the numbers of excess deaths, they may be able to gain some of the loss,” Arias said.
But additional deaths may emerge as a result of people missing regular doctor visits for other health conditions during the pandemic.
“We may be seeing the indirect effects of the pandemic for some time to come,” she said.
Americans whose relatives and friends died in the pandemic saw their own painful losses reflected in the report.
Denise Chandler, a mother of eight who lives in Detroit and lost both her husband and father to the coronavirus last year, is now the head of one of the many Black families who have suffered greatly from the pandemic.
“I see a lot of fatherless children now, and a lot of wives without their husbands,” she said Wednesday.
Chandler quit work for most of a year to help her children recover from their loss and, even now, has many days when they barely let her out the door — because they are fearful she will get sick and die, too.
The predominantly Latino, working-class city of Chelsea, just north of Boston, was among the areas of Massachusetts hardest hit by the coronavirus.
Gladys Vega, executive director of a community organization called La Colaborativa, said the death rate from COVID-19 had been exacerbated by lack of access to health care: Many people in Chelsea are in the country without legal permission, and they feared that going to a hospital or applying for health insurance could result in deportation.
“That creates all these other dilemmas in their health conditions that make everything worse,” Vega said. The community lost “elders, young people, people that we never thought would be gone,” she said.
The statistics in the report released Wednesday laid bare the staggering toll of the pandemic, which has, at times, pushed the health system to its limits.
Measuring life expectancy is not intended to precisely predict actual life spans; rather, it is a measure of a population’s health, revealing either society-wide distress or advancement. The sheer magnitude of the drop in 2020 wiped away decades of progress.
Even if deaths from COVID-19 markedly decline in 2021, the economic and social effects will linger, especially among racial groups that were disproportionately affected, researchers have noted.
Although there have long been racial and ethnic disparities in life expectancy, the gaps had been narrowing for decades. In 1993, white Americans were expected to live 7.1 years longer than Black Americans, but the gap had been winnowed to 4.1 years in 2019.
COVID-19 did away with much of that progress: White Americans are now expected to live 5.8 years longer.
Hispanic Americans had a life expectancy that was three years longer than that of white Americans in 2019, but that gap decreased to 1.2 years in 2020.