Posted on September 15, 2022, 2:46 PMUpdated on September 15, 2022 at 3:27 PM
Seventy-seven against seventy-six. Last year, Chinese life expectancy at birth surpassed that of Americans (76.1 years). This transition was expected in the middle of the decade, but Beijing’s “zero Covid” strategy has slowed the movement, pointed out the American historian Adam Tooze in his blog. “This is a historic change, in a way that is more revealing than the GDP numbers usually quoted,” he wrote, saddened to see this human development index fall in the United States. A harsh statistic, about a prosperous, technologically advanced country, in times of peace.
Life expectancy has stagnated across the Atlantic for a decade now. But it fell in the Covid epidemic, falling 2.7 years in two years, or thirty-one months, according to data published at the end of August by the American health authorities (CDC). Even after the arrival of vaccines, in 2021, and despite the reduction of deaths due to influenza, pneumonia, etc., it fell in eleven months. The average American dies before the average Cuban or Albanian, points out Adam Tooze.
An uneven health response
While the United States continues to fall, in France life expectancy at birth has recovered in 2021 – although the slope of the first year of Covid has not fully recovered. We live there mostly older. French women lost two and a half months during this two-year crisis, but they could still expect to live 85.4 years. Men gave almost five months, at 79.3. Regardless of gender, French people benefit on average six years longer than Americans.
In April, researchers from the universities of Virginia and Colorado compared US data with data from 19 developed countries, and found that the gap in life expectancy widened between Americans and their peers in those time. They are the only ones who did not experience the demographic catch-up in 2021.
This is partly due to a loose health policy in some states. Republican leaders in Florida or Texas proudly reject mask requirements — putting liberties above public health. Vaccination campaigns are not carried out anywhere with the same intensity. As a result, less than 68% of Americans are fully vaccinated, compared to almost 79% of French, 83% of Canadians.
Beyond these political divisions, the collapse in American life expectancy reflects the weight of social inequality. The poorest communities, in poor health and with little access to care, are paying a heavy price for Covid. Indians and Alaskans could hardly hope to exceed sixty-five on average, and African Americans seventy. Those two communities have lost 6.6 and four years, respectively, since 2019, compared to 2.4 years for non-Hispanic whites.
The opioid demon
However, Covid alone does not explain the American withdrawal. Last year, excess deaths due to this disease accounted for only half of the decline in life expectancy, after 74% in 2020, according to the CDC. The United States is also a victim of its old demons, especially the opioid crisis and the increase in violence with weapons, grouped in the “accident” category, which will weigh up to 16% in 2021.
Overdose is the cause of half of these accidents. The balance sheet for the twelve months of March reported 109,000 deaths, almost 10,000 more in one year, and 40,000 in two years. Although pharmaceutical companies have been sued for overprescribing high-potency painkillers, overdoses continue to be rampant. Heroin addicts are increasingly falling back on Fentanyl, 30 to 50 times more powerful, but with shorter effects, leading to more injections. Others died after unknowingly inoculating themselves with fentanyl-cut heroin. In the United States, one epidemic hides another.