Covid-19 has caused the largest decline in U.S. life expectancy since World War II, the federal government reported yesterday. But Covid is not the only reason that life expectancy in this country fell last year to its lowest level in almost two decades.
Even before the pandemic, the U.S. was mired in an alarming period of rising mortality. It had no modern precedent: During the second half of the 2010s, life expectancy fell on a sustained basis for the first time since the fighting of World War II killed several hundred thousand Americans.
Deaths of despair
It’s hard to imagine a more alarming sign of a society’s well-being than an inability to keep its citizens alive. While some of the reasons are mysterious, others are fairly clear. American society has become far more unequal than it used to be, and the recent increases in mortality are concentrated among working-class Americans, especially those without a four-year college degree.
For many, daily life lacks the structure, status and meaning that it once had, as the Princeton University economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton have explained. Many people feel less of a connection to an employer, a labor union, a church or community groups. They are less likely to be married. They are more likely to endure chronic pain and to report being unhappy.
These trends have led to a surge of “deaths of despair” (a phrase that Case and Deaton coined), from drugs, alcohol and suicide. Other health problems, including diabetes and strokes, have also surged among the working class. Notably, the class gaps in life expectancy seem to be starker in the U.S. than in most other rich countries.
Covid, of course, has aggravated the country’s health inequalities. Working-class Americans were more likely to contract severe versions of Covid last year, for a mix of reasons. Many could not work from home. Others received lower-quality medical care after getting sick.
Since vaccines became widely available this year, working-class people have been less likely to get a shot. At first, vaccine access was playing a major role. Today, vaccine skepticism is the dominant explanation. (All of which suggests that Covid will continue to exacerbate health disparities beyond 2020; yesterday’s report on life expectancy did not include data for 2021.)
Race and sex
Covid has also caused sharp increases in racial inequality. As a Times article on the new report explains:
From 2019 to 2020, Hispanic people experienced the greatest drop in life expectancy — three years — and Black Americans saw a decrease of 2.9 years. White Americans experienced the smallest decline, of 1.2 years.
I exchanged emails with Case and Deaton yesterday, and they pointed out that racial patterns contain some nuances. Hispanic Americans live longer on average than non-Hispanic Americans, both Black and white — yet the impact of Covid was worst among Hispanics. “This is not simply a story of existing inequalities just getting worse,” Case and Deaton wrote.
The fact that many Hispanic people work in frontline jobs that exposed them to the virus surely plays a role. But Black workers also tend to hold these jobs. It’s unclear exactly why Covid has hit Hispanic communities somewhat harder than Black communities (and would be a worthy subject for academic research).
Covid has also killed more men than women, Case and Deaton pointed out, increasing the mortality gap between the sexes, after years in which it had mostly been shrinking. Life expectancy was 5.7 years longer for women last year, up from 5.1 years in 2019. The gap had fallen to a low of 4.8 years in the early 2010s.
The bottom line: Covid has both worsened and exposed a crisis in health inequality. But that crisis existed before Covid and will continue to exist when the pandemic is over.
THE LATEST NEWS
Biden Town Hall
President Biden predicted at a CNN event in Ohio that the F.D.A. would fully approve Covid vaccines by the fall, and that young children would become eligible “soon.”
Biden said there was “no reason to protect” the Senate filibuster except that a fight over it would “throw the entire Congress into chaos.”
When asked about Republicans who call Democrats anti-police, Biden said, “They’re lying.”
Countries will probably have to learn to live with Covid, measuring its toll through deaths and severe illness rather than through infections.
Some U.S. health care workers have refused to get vaccinated. More hospitals are requiring them to.
“I’m sorry, but it’s too late”: A doctor in Alabama spoke to AL.com about the regrets of unvaccinated patients.
A test vote to advance a bipartisan infrastructure bill failed, but negotiators said they were optimistic that they could reach an agreement in coming days.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi blocked two Trump allies from the committee investigating Jan. 6. In response, Kevin McCarthy, the House G.O.P. leader, said that Republicans would boycott the panel.
The Justice Department is no longer seeking the death penalty in seven cases — a signal that Biden may end federal capital punishment.
The U.S. women’s soccer team, favored to win gold, lost its first match, to Sweden, 3-0. The Americans play New Zealand on Saturday. The U.S. softball team beat Canada, 1-0.
Organizers fired the creative director of tomorrow’s opening ceremony over a 1990s comedic act in which he made fun of the Holocaust.
“Society was burning with excitement”: Tokyo last hosted the Olympics in 1964 amid postwar optimism. The feeling is different this time.
Organizers are allowing some forms of protest before competitions. The Times spoke to the U.S. track star Tommie Smith, who raised his fist on the medal stand in 1968.
Other Big Stories
Four major drug companies reached a $26 billion deal with states to drop thousands of lawsuits over their role in the opioid epidemic.
Pacific Gas & Electric plans to bury 10,000 miles of its power lines in California to try to curb the wildfire risk.
Maine will require companies — not local governments — to cover recycling costs for packaging.
Security forces in Iran have cracked down on protests about a water shortage brought on by drought and government mismanagement.
When the trading app Robinhood goes public, it will try something new for Wall Street: selling some shares to everyday investors.
To enjoy the Olympics — despite corporate greed, scandal and a pandemic — focus on the athletes, The Times’s Lindsay Crouse suggests.
Climate change has brought fire and bug infestations to Yosemite National Park, Susannah Meadows writes.
Essential workers: These 115 people kept New York City going in its darkest months.
Star power: Riley Keough’s family history is as outrageous as it gets.
“Let’s Talk Straight”: A viral rap song about Israel’s Jewish-Arab fracture challenges its listeners.
Stay fit: Lifting weights? Your fat cells would like to have a word.
Advice from Wirecutter: Use sunscreen on your face every day, even if you work indoors.
Lives Lived: Before the Metropolitan Opera hired Gil Wechsler in 1977, it had never had a resident lighting designer. While his contributions often went unnoticed, Wechsler was, as one director said, “a master of atmosphere.” He died at 79.
ARTS AND IDEAS
‘The Daily Show’ turns 25
It started as a scrappy news spoof on a second-tier cable network on this day in 1996. Since then, “The Daily Show” has become a staple.
The show is known for its famous hosts, Jon Stewart and Trevor Noah, and for launching the careers of comedians like Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell. But it originated with two women: Madeleine Smithberg and Lizz Winstead.
Winstead told The Times she found inspiration watching TV coverage of the first Gulf War: “I said to myself, ‘Are they reporting on a war or trying to sell me a war?’ It felt so orchestrated.”
“The Daily Show” became culturally relevant after the disputed 2000 election, partly because it could “shed a light on the absurdity of this situation,” Smithberg said. For more stories — including how they discovered Colbert and how “Dateline” served as inspiration — read the full conversation with Smithberg and Winstead. — Claire Moses, a Morning writer
PLAY, WATCH, EAT
What to Cook
Tomatoes are the indisputable stars of the summer. Here are 15 unfussy recipes.
What to Read
Get ready to have some perspiration myths busted (like the one that equates sweating with detoxification) in Sarah Everts’s book, “The Joy of Sweat.”
What to Watch
If you’re looking for something different, the stop-motion satire “Ultra City Smiths” might be it.
Colbert agreed with Mitch McConnell.
Now Time to Play
The pangram from yesterday’s Spelling Bee was purloin. Here is today’s puzzle — or you can play online.
Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Piece of ice (four letters).
If you’re in the mood to play more, find all our games here.
Thanks for spending part of your morning with The Times. See you tomorrow. — David
P.S. A hidden haiku from a Times list of three quick meditations: “Take a few mindful / steps, paying close attention / to each sensation.”
Here’s today’s print front page.
“The Daily” is about the assassination of Haiti’s president. On “Sway,” Oren Frank of Talkspace discusses online therapy. On the Modern Love podcast, love across closed borders.
Lalena Fisher, Natasha Frost, Claire Moses, Ian Prasad Philbrick and Tom Wright-Piersanti contributed to The Morning. You can reach the team at [email protected].
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