New Data Show the Pandemic Has Slashed Black and Brown Life Expectancy

Maryland Cremation Services transporter Reggie Elliott brings the remains of a COVID-19 victim to his van from the hospital’s morgue in Baltimore on December 24, 2020. Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

As the coronavirus ravaged the nation, life expectancy in the United States plunged by one full year during the first half of 2020, according to a new Centers of Disease Control and Prevention report released Thursday. Minority communities suffered by far the biggest impact.

Life expectancy, defined by how long a baby born today can expect to live on average, dropped from 78.8 years last year to 77.8 during the first six months of 2020 for which the CDC has data. It’s the largest decline in life expectancy in the United States since World War II.

But when this toll is broken down by race and ethnicity, stark differences emerge. For Black people, the average lifespan will shrink by nearly three years, while Latinos will see their life expectancy reduced by two. The expected lifespan of white Americans dropped 0.8 years, to 78. (The CDC’s initial data did not report the change in life expectancy among Asian Americans or Native Americans.)

“We’re living in a global pandemic in which we know many people have died, so it is not unexpected to see a decline in life expectancy,” says Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, the vice-dean of population health and health equity at UC San Francisco. “What is surprising is to see the magnitude of the effect with just six months of data.”

The historic race gap between white and Black lifespans in the U.S had been shrinking in recent years, but these latest figures have reversed some of that progress. Now, that gap is at six years — the widest it has been since 1998. “I knew it was going to be large, but when I saw those numbers, I was like, ‘Oh my God,’” Elizabeth Arias, lead author of the report, told the New York Times of the stunning racial differences in her findings.

Disparities in years lost among Black and Hispanic people are in line with the disproportionate effect COVID-19 has had on communities of color, according to Bibbins-Domingo. While the U.S. death toll is approaching 500,000 people approximately one year into the pandemic, the brunt of the virus has not been spread equally.

Although life expectancy in the U.S. is predicted to improve after the country quells the pandemic, Bibbins-Domingo and other experts worry that its impacts on minority communities could linger. “The solutions to trying to reverse these trends really are about leading first with equity, focusing on our minority communities with regard to how we address the pandemic,” Bibbins-Domingo says. “That’s a trend we’ve been seeing for a long time in the U.S., even before this pandemic: Economic inequalities are really leading to health inequalities and lower life expectancy.”

But the virus wasn’t the only factor behind the change. According to the report, the numbers also reveal the impact the pandemic has had on society at large: A surge in drug-overdose deaths and in people dying from other health problems, such as heart disease and cancer, is part of the decline too.

The latest CDC data account for only the first six months of 2020, which, the report notes, “do not reflect the entirety of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.” That means the decline in life expectancy will likely fall even further because the pandemic turned more deadly as the year wore on. “These numbers are going to get worse,” says Bibbins-Domingo. “That is a certainty.”

The Pandemic Has Slashed Black and Brown Life Expectancy