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Report: COVID-19 Had Dramatic Effect on Life Expectancies of Poor and Minorities

Though all racial and ethnic groups saw declines in life expectancy, the impact was greater among members of minority groups.

Though the COVID-19 pandemic has taken the lives of people from every walk of life, a new report shows the virus had a disproportionate effect on the life expectancies of people with lower incomes and on members of certain racial and ethnic groups.

The report, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, was based on data from California from before and after the pandemic (2015-2021). The data showed the gap in life expectancy between the richest and poorest California’s ballooned from 11.52 years in 2019 to 15.51 years in 2021.

“We’ve had indications that the pandemic affected economically disadvantaged people more strongly, but we were shocked to see in the data just how much the pandemic blew up existing income and race/ethnicity disparities in mortality,” corresponding author Hannes Schwandt, PhD, of Northwestern University, told Contagion.

Schwandt said the idea that income level and socioeconomic status affect life expectancy is not new; it has been well-documented. Yet, the question amassed even greater importance during the pandemic, he and colleagues explained, since the pandemic came with significant economic disruptions that disproportionately affected those with lower incomes. In addition, previous research has suggested that American Indians, Blacks, and Hispanics have had higher mortality rates from COVID-19. Schwandt and colleagues wanted to see whether those findings might translate into disproportionate life-expectancy changes.

The investigators used California Department of Health death records, along with US Census Bureau data in order to complete their analysis.

They found nearly 2 million deaths occurred in the state between 2015 and 2021, including 654,887 during the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021. Overall, life expectancy in the state dropped from 81.40 years in 2019 to 78.37 years in 2021. However, when investigators compared the life expectancies of people with the richest and poorest median household incomes (MHI), they found that the gap of more than 11 years stretched out to more than 15 years over the first two years of the pandemic.

In their analysis of racial and ethnic group outcomes, the investigators said life expectancy within the Hispanic population in the state dropped by 5.74 years during the pandemic, the life expectancy of non-Hispanic Blacks dropped by 3.84 years, the life expectancy of non-Hispanic Asians declined by 3.04 years, and the life expectancy of non-Hispanic Whites dropped by 1.90 years. They also found income had a greater effect on life expectancy for members of racial and ethnic minority groups compared to Whites.

Schwandt and colleagues said there are a number of potential reasons for the disparities, which echo other published reports on how social determinants can impact one’s health. They noted that not only can socioeconomic factors potentially expose people to a higher risk of infection (for instance, if they cannot work from home or must rely on public transportation), but the economic stress of the pandemic can itself lead to other health problems.

Schwandt said one lesson from the study is that COVID-19 mitigation policies did not appear to protect disadvantaged populations from “drastic” life expectancy losses.

“Of course, we do not know how the situation would have looked without these specific policies,” he said, “but in the future it would be important to pay special attention to those factors that prevented lower-income populations from avoiding infections, such as job types, housing circumstances, transportation modes, healthcare access barriers, etc.”