The Republican response to COVID-19 wiped out the last 20 years of gains in US life expectancy, shrinking average US life spans from just under 78 years in 2019 to 76.6 in 2021. No other developed country, and few developing nations, saw impacts from COVID that remotely compare to ours. Though for most of us the pandemic is ending, in the US it still kills more than 500 people a day, 96% of them unvaccinated. By comparison, we average fewer than 70 murders a day in the US.
A study released this week shows that early in the pandemic, deaths were disproportionately concentrated in minority communities. However, as a vaccine became available that trend shifted. Life expectancies began to recover in 2021 in Hispanic and Black communities while among whites, lifespans continued their steep decline.
Even before the pandemic, a child born in the United States could expect to live roughly as long as a child born in Panama, Cuba or Lebanon. Lifespans common in Europe and Asia have long been out of reach for Americans thanks to our pervasive poverty, poor health care, and serious mental health issues. Before an American child has made their first decision in life, their range of likely life outcomes has already been dimmed by politics.
Life expectancies are actually higher today than they were in 2019 in countries with a robust pandemic response like South Korea, Norway, New Zealand, Denmark, Portugal. South Korea and Norway never saw an annual decline. The US stands out with a pandemic-era decline in lifespans of nearly 3%. No other developed country comes close to this level of carnage.
Why are Americans living shorter and shorter lives? Since 2019, COVID has been the leading explanation. And since the broad availability of vaccines early in 2021, politics has been the main reason COVID remains a killer.
The US was the first country to enjoy broad access to the vaccine, yet continues to lag in vaccinations. Thailand, Peru and Brazil have fully vaccinated a larger proportion of their population than the US. Republican politics isn’t just killing people, it’s killing its own voters.
Who made up America’s largest contingent of vaccine resistors? White evangelicals, the same people who form the backbone of Republican politics. While other groups began to recover from the unnecessary toll of COVID, whites in 2021 continued to die at an accelerating pace. Death rates from COVID disinformation are so concentrated among politically conservative whites that you can track the death rate on a map.
As recently as January 2022, in the midst of the Omicron wave, COVID was still killing more Americans than cancer. Meanwhile, the death rate from COVID among fully-vaccinated individuals was running just a fraction above zero. By the second half of 2021, COVID deaths were almost entirely voluntary in the US.
Since the arrival of a COVID vaccine, Republicans have been killing themselves and each other at a rate so large as to depress America’s overall average life expectancy.
COVID is fading away, squeezed between rising vaccination rates and a population who acquired their immunity the hard way. What we should learn from this disaster is that politics is always a matter of life and death.