The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Covid study finds some 28 million extra years of life lost in 2020, with U.S. male life expectancy badly hit

Medical staff members in October transport the body of a patient who died of covid-19 at the morgue of a hospital in Ukraine. (Evgeniy Maloletka/AP)

More than 28 million extra years of human life were lost in 2020, a year marked by the global spread of the coronavirus, according to a study released Wednesday that further underscored the immense human toll that the pandemic has wrought.

The international study, published in the BMJ journal, examined changes to life expectancy in 37 upper-middle to high-income countries where researchers said reliable data was available. The study, led by an Oxford University public health researcher, also considered years of life lost, a metric that measures the degree of premature mortality among the dead, by comparing the ages of the deceased to their life expectancies.

The authors said the measure was more precise in calculating the impact of the pandemic than, for instance, just looking at excess deaths, a metric that does not distinguish between the death of a 17-year-old and that of a 70-year-old. The researchers used life expectancy between 2005 and 2019 as a benchmark for their study.

“Our results strongly justify a more nuanced estimation of the lives lost,” the authors wrote. “More than 222 million years of life were lost in 2020, which is 28.1 million … years of life lost more than expected.”

The highest fall in life expectancy occurred in Russia, where men lost 2.33 extra years at birth, and women 2.14 years. The United States was second, with men losing 2.27 extra years, and women 1.61. Bulgaria, Lithuania, Chile, and Spain followed.

In six places — New Zealand, Taiwan, Iceland, South Korea, Norway and Denmark — where the public health response to the pandemic was largely seen as effective, life expectancy either increased or marked no change. The first four economies have recorded fewer than 10 covid-linked deaths for every 100,000 residents, while Norway and Denmark respectively logged 17 and 47 deaths for every 100,000 people, according to Washington Post figures.

This week, the number of Americans killed by the deadly disease reached 750,000. That translates to about 228 people per 100,000 residents of the United States.

More people have died of covid in 2021 than last year, World Health Organization data show, suggesting that the extra years of life lost from the pandemic will be much higher than measured in the new study.

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At the end of 2020, approximately 1.9 million people had died because of the pandemic, WHO figures show. Some 5 million people are now dead.

In terms of years of life lost, the coronavirus pandemic is the deadliest global disease outbreak since the 1918-19 influenza pandemic, which cut short an estimated 63.7 million years of life, according to one study.

The 1918 pandemic killed relatively young people as opposed to covid-19, of which the elderly have borne the brunt.

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