CHICAGO — Life expectancy in the United States fell by a year and a half in 2020, largely because of the deadly coronavirus pandemic, a federal report said on Wednesday, a staggering drop that affected Hispanic and Black Americans more severely than white people.
It was the steepest decline in life expectancy in the United States since World War II.
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.
The numbers can vary from year to year, providing only a snapshot in time of the general health of a population: If an American child was born today and lived an entire life under the conditions of 2020, that child would be expected to live 77.3 years, down from 77.8 in 2019.
The last time life expectancy was so low was in 2003, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, the agency that released the figures and a part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Racial and ethnic disparities have persisted throughout the coronavirus pandemic, a reflection of many factors, including the differences in overall health and available health care between white, Hispanic and Black people in the United States. Black and Hispanic Americans were more likely to be employed in risky, public-facing jobs during the pandemic — bus drivers, restaurant cooks, sanitation workers — rather than working from home in relative safety on their laptops in white-collar jobs.
They also more commonly depend on public transportation, risking coronavirus exposure, or live in multigenerational homes and in tighter conditions that were more conducive to spreading the virus.
Dr. Mary T. Bassett, a former New York City health commissioner and professor of health and human rights at Harvard University, said that the numbers were devastating, but not surprising.
The coronavirus “uncovered the deep racial and ethnic inequities in access to health, and I don’t think that we’ve ever overcome them,” Dr. Bassett said. “To think that we’ll just bounce back from them seems a bit wishful thinking.”
The precipitous drop in 2020, caused largely by Covid-19, is not likely to be permanent. In 1918, the flu pandemic wiped 11.8 years from Americans’ life expectancy, and the number fully rebounded the following year. But Elizabeth Arias, the federal researcher who produced the report, said that life expectancy isn’t likely to bounce back to prepandemic levels anytime soon.
Returning the life expectancy numbers to those of 2019 would require having “no more excess death because of Covid, and that’s already not possible in 2021,” Dr. Arias said.
Beyond that, she said, the effects of the pandemic on life expectancy, especially for Black and Latino people, could linger for years.
“If it was just the pandemic and we were able to take control of that and reduce the numbers of excess deaths, they may be able to gain some of the loss,” Dr. Arias said. But additional deaths may emerge as a result of people missing regular doctor visits for other health conditions during the pandemic.
“We may be seeing the indirect effects of the pandemic for some time to come,” she said.
Americans whose relatives and friends died in the pandemic saw their own painful losses reflected in the report.
Denise Chandler, a mother of eight who lives in Detroit and lost both her husband and father to the coronavirus last year, is now the head of one of the many Black families who have suffered greatly from the pandemic — a common scenario in her community.
“I see a lot of fatherless children now, and a lot of wives without their husbands,” she said on Wednesday. Ms. Chandler quit work for most of a year to help her children recover from their loss and, even now, has many days when they barely let her out the door — because they are fearful she will get sick and die, too.
Ms. Chandler points to what she described as substandard care at the hospital in their neighborhood where her husband, who died at 35, was treated for Covid, a facility that serves many patients in Detroit’s African American community.
“If he was white, he wouldn’t have been at that hospital,” she said.
The statistics in the report released Wednesday laid bare the staggering toll of the pandemic, which has killed more than 600,000 Americans as it has, at times, pushed the health system to its limits.
Measuring life expectancy is not intended to precisely predict actual life spans; rather, it’s a measure of a population’s health, revealing either society-wide distress or advancement. The sheer magnitude of the drop in 2020 wiped away decades of progress.
In recent decades, life expectancy had steadily risen in the United States — until 2014, when an opioid epidemic took hold and caused the kind of decline rarely seen in developed countries. The decline flattened in 2018 and 2019.
The pandemic appears to have amplified the opioid crisis. More than 40 states have recorded increases in opioid-related deaths since the pandemic began, according to the American Medical Association.
Even if deaths from Covid-19 markedly decline in 2021, the economic and social effects will linger, especially among racial groups that were disproportionately affected, researchers have noted.
Though there have long been racial and ethnic disparities in life expectancy, the gaps had been narrowing for decades. In 1993, white Americans were expected to live 7.1 years longer than Black Americans, but the gap had been winnowed to 4.1 years in 2019.
Covid-19 did away much of that progress: White Americans are now expected to live 5.8 years longer.
As before, there remains a gender gap. Women in the United States were expected to live 80.2 years in the new figures, down from 81.4 in 2019, while men were expected to live 74.5 years, down from 76.3.
While the 1.5-year decline was caused mostly by the coronavirus pandemic, making up 74 percent of the negative contribution, there were also smaller rises in unintentional injuries, chronic liver disease and cirrhosis, homicide and diabetes.