COVID-19 pandemic has cut life expectancy globally

COVID-19 reversed earlier trends toward longer life expectancies. During the pandemic, life expectancies globally dropped by 1.6 years according to a new study published today in the Lancet medical journal.

Between 1950 and 2021 global life expectancy at birth rose by 23 years.

The research reveals new details about the high mortality from COVID-19 internationally. It looked at 204 countries and territories, and 811 subnational regions.

It updates results from the 2021 Global Burden of Disease Study. The new analysis suggests a big jump in mortality for those over the age of 15.

Between 2019 and 2021, according to the study, mortality rose by 22% for males and 17% for females above 15 years of age.

“For adults worldwide, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a more profound impact than any event seen in half a century, including conflicts and natural disasters,” says co-first author Dr Austin E. Schumacher, from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington. “Life expectancy declined in 84% of countries and territories during this pandemic, demonstrating the devastating potential impacts of novel pathogens.”

A significant element of the study was looking at regions of the world where reporting about COVID-19 has been less prominent.

For example, Nicaragua had high excess death not apparent in previous studies looking at excess mortality during the pandemic. South African provinces KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo showed the world’s highest age-adjusted excess mortality and largest drop in life expectancy.

Excess deaths tracked by the Economist give the “best estimate” of the true toll of the COVID-19 pandemic which stands at about 28.5 million.

Australia and New Zealand – countries which early on in the pandemic had instituted some public health measures such as lockdowns to stop the spread of the virus – saw better results than elsewhere in the world.

One of only 32 countries which saw an increase in life expectancy during the pandemic, Australia saw a 0.01% increase in mortality during 2020–21. New Zealand had among the lowest age-adjusted excess mortality from the pandemic.

The authors say that the decades since 1950 have seen great leaps forward in dropping child mortality – these trends continued, though at a slower pace even during the pandemic.

“Now, continuing to build on our successes, while preparing for the next pandemic and addressing the vast disparities in health across countries, should be our greatest focuses,” says co-first author Dr Hmwe Hmwe Kyu, also from the University of Washington.

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