The country saw the number of overdoses explode last year, while lockdowns isolated more and more Americans. Violence also increased. COVID-19 has highlighted the profound divisions and angst in some parts of America.
It will take time to determine all of the consequences of the COVID crisis, but the United States is already seeing some of them. Last year, life expectancy decreased by 1.5 years, the largest drop since the World War II. It now sits at 77.3 years, compared to 78.8 last year.
Three-quarters of this decline is due to the pandemic. Almost 610,000 Americans have died, including 375,000 in 2020, according to data provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last year, COVID-19 was the third largest cause of death in the United States, behind heart disease and cancer.
Certain population groups were more exposed: African Americans lost an average of 2.9 years and Latinos lost three years, even though in normal times, they have a longer life expectancy than African Americans or non-Latinos. Latino life expectancy fell to 78.8 years, compared to 81.8 before the pandemic.
Minorities at a Higher Risk
“COVID was responsible for 90% of the drop in life expectancy for Hispanics,” according to the CDC. “They were at greater risk of infection. People who work in the service sector couldn’t telecommute,”* Elizabeth Arias, one of the report’s authors, noted. While the gap has narrowed between white people and minorities over recent years, all of these improvements were reduced to nothing by COVID-19.
The other factor that explains this brutal drop in life expectancy is the growing number of drug overdoses. The number of deaths caused by drug overdoses exploded last year to 93,331. That is 30% more than in 2019; the largest growth in 30 years. In particular, deaths have increased since March 2020, when the majority of states began to enforce lockdowns.
Violence on the Rise
The majority of these overdoses are linked to opioids, a plague that has affected America for a number of years and which various policies have failed, so far, to stop. Of the 93,331 deaths, 57,550 were attributed to synthetic opioids, in particular fentanyl, 54% higher than in 2019. Certain laboratories have committed to stopping the production of the strongest and most addictive pain killers, including Johnson & Johnson, in a $26 billion settlement with several states that had filed suit.
Overdoses linked to the use of cocaine and amphetamines have also jumped. The pandemic has reinforced isolation for some and highlighted a phenomenon that was already poisoning American society before the crisis. Due to the use of opioids and the deterioration of the health system, life expectancy has already been declining since 2015.
Other factors that increased mortality last year were violence and social tensions. Homicides, the lowest for 20 years across the entire country, are back on the rise. For the first time since 1995, they surpassed 20,000, 4,000 more than in 2019. This violence is concentrated in the poorest districts, notably African American, which pay the heaviest price for gun violence. A city like Philadelphia saw the number of homicides with guns jump by 40% last year.
*This quote, though accurately translated, could not be independently verified.