What Covid-19 is doing to life expectancies for Black and Latino Americans

Covid-19 has disproportionately killed more Black and Latino people living in the US than white people.
Covid-19 has disproportionately killed more Black and Latino people living in the US than white people.
Image: Reuters/Shannon Stapelton
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For nearly a year, the Covid-19 pandemic has killed Black and Latino Americans at disproportionately high rates. Now, scientists predict those deaths will have lasting effects on these populations’ life expectancies.

In a paper appearing online on Dec. 8, Theresa Andrasfay, a gerontologist at the University of California at Davis, and Noreen Goldman, a professor of demography at Princeton University, calculated that Covid-19 deaths through the end of 2020 would likely shorten the average life expectancy in the US by 1.1 years, from 78.6 in 2017 down to 77.5 in 2020. But that drop will be even more precipitous for people of color.

For Black and Latino populations in the US, researchers expect life expectancies will fall from 75.3 years to 72.8 years and 81.8 to 77.8, respectively. White populations, on the other hand, are projected to lose roughly one year of life.

Life expectancy in the US was on a steady upward climb over decades. That trend was interrupted in the mid-2010s, as the US experienced higher levels of suicide and deaths by drug overdoses during the opioid epidemic. But the scale of those losses are nothing compared to the pandemic. The last time the US experienced any drop in life expectancy was between 2016 and 2017, when it dropped from 78.7 to 78.6 years; the drop due to Covid-19 is likely to be 10 times higher.

The researchers came up with these projections based on Covid-19 death data from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) out of the University of Washington, which estimated the number of Covid-19 deaths through the end of 2020 in four different scenarios.

The first was in glorious parallel universe where the pandemic hadn’t happened at all. In that case, the average life expectancy would have likely stayed more or less the same. The second was based on the rate of Covid-19 deaths as of the beginning of December; the third shows an even worse scenario, in which precautions across the country were further loosened. And the final scenario reflects the lowered deaths that would result if everyone universally wore masks.

In these projections, the implications of policy changes for minority populations are stark, too. If all states adopted mask policies, the overall population would see a slight increase in life expectancy—about a sixth of a year. But the benefits would multiply for Black and Hispanic populations, which would see life expectancies improve by a quarter of a year and four-tenths of a year, respectively.

The pandemic has taken a disproportionate toll on these communities, but policymakers still have a chance to reduce that burden.