Black male life expectancy hit hardest due to COVID

Black men’s loss of 3 years of life expectancy since the onset of the pandemic is comparable to the average American’s loss of 2.9 years in World War II.

According to research gathered from analyzing US death certificates, the COVID-19 global pandemic created the greatest shift in American life expectancy since World War II.

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Becoming the third leading cause of death in 2020, a PBS report of the findings showed that the coronavirus erased nearly two years from the average American’s life expectancy. Before vaccines were available to the general American public, life expectancy decreased from 78.8 years in 2019 to 77 years. While many may deem a loss of two years as insignificant, social epidemiologist Dr. Zinzi Bailey said it’s “rolling back decades and decades of progress.” Bailey, who is also a professor at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, told PBS, “we are going backwards.

While 1.8 years is significantly less than the 11-year loss in life expectancy following the 1918 influenza pandemic, the decrease due to COVID-19 was especially difficult for marginalized populations—and even more specifically, Black men, who died at rates greater than any other racial or ethnic group. In the first six months of 2020, Black men’s life expectancy decreased by 3 years. This mirrors the 2.9-year life expectancy loss the average American experienced during the height of World War II. At the same time, white people have collectively experienced a loss of 1.2 years of life expectancy during the pandemic.

The impact of the coronavirus halts steady progress African Americans have made regarding life expectancy. Elizabeth Arias, research lead and demographer with the National Center for Health, told PBS that, within recent years as a result of economic gains, social mobility and greater healthcare access, the life expectancy of African Americans began to head towards that of white Americans. In 1900, African Americans were dying 14 years sooner than their white counterparts. By 2019, that margin had closed to 4.1 years. “It takes a long time for the progress in health equity to prolong people’s lives,” Arias said.

Princeton Professor of Demography and Public Affairs Noreen Goldman told PBS the impact on Black men is due in large part to the greater likelihood of people of color being essential workers and being diagnosed with chronic illnesses that worsen COVID-19 symptoms and conditions. “This kind of excess mortality is representing structural inequalities that have existed for a long time that increase both the risk of exposure to the virus and the risk of dying from the virus,” Goldman explained.

Though Arias is hopeful that life expectancy rates will rebound, she is skeptical that it can happen any time soon. Arias says that a return to pre-COVID life expectancy numbers means “no more excess death because of COVID.” As America surpassed 900,000 deaths due to the coronavirus, that total rebound does not seem imminent.

Unfortunately, Arias believes the pandemic’s effects on life expectancy will linger for African Americans and other people of color for some time. “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. However, as other wellness conditions worsen because of the pandemic and access to healthcare remains strained, communities of color are facing more than just the weight of excess death. “We may be seeing the indirect effects of the pandemic for some time to come.”

Candice Marie Benbow is theGrio’s daily lifestyle, education and health writer. She’s also the author of Red Lip Theology: For Church Girls Who’ve Considered Tithing to the Beauty Supply Store When Sunday Morning Isn’t Enough. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @candicebenbow.

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