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Politics and Life Expectancy

Politics and Life Expectancy

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. 


  1. So slight tangent. A while ago you were talking about what future governments may look like and I pushed for Disney. I never knew about the Reedy Creek District, but it goes even further to my point. Disney is literally its own government at Disney world. It provides all public services (police, fire, ems, etc), urban planning (the govt has no zoning authority), infrastructure (builds and maintains all its own roads) and even issues its own bonds based essentially on its own taxing authority (ie ability to tax itself). Even the local “village” that nominally oversees the special district has all of 55 residents, all Disney employees.

    By all accounts, Disney manages all of these governmental functions far better than an actual government. You will never see a pothole on Disney roads, nor a police officer shooting an unarmed black man.

    I’m actually quite impressed by what they’ve done there and perhaps that is the next model: carve out huge swaths of your state and essentially privatize the entire thing. Collect an annual rent and that’s it. instead of selectively privatizing specific services, do the opposite: privatize the entire region and selectively cede back parts to the govt (Disney subcontracts certain stuff back to the county government, and pays for it).

    That will free up our politicians from the pesky task of competent governance so they can indulge in their true passions: fundraising, grandstanding, and the occasional pederasty.

    Speaking of which, I wondered why Disney has been so quiet as DeSantis fast tracked revoking the special district. And now we know: if the district is dissolved, all of its debt becomes the responsibility of the local counties (somewhere between 1-2 billion), the amount Disney pays those counties will go down, and those counties are on the hook to provide all those services Disney used to do for themselves.

    While those counties are purple/bluish, I can imagine a campaign of “vote out DeSantis so we can reinstate the special district or else your property taxes will quadruple!!” Might convince quite a few Republicans to vote their pocketbooks this year.

    And then Disney can “agree” to the new special district after driving a hard bargain with a county staring at imminent bankruptcy.

    The phrase “please don’t throw me in that briar patch!” Comes to mind. If only DeSantis read those Uncle Remus stories. But he probably thinks Br’er rabbit was gay and has already banned it…

    1. I’ve invoked that briar patch analogy in other discussions. Here’s an interesting counter opinion:

      I’ve been to Disney World, and several of the Six Flags parks, and what Beau says about Disney’s aggressive approach to infrastructure and maintenance is 100% true. If a guest litters, that piece of trash isn’t on the ground for very long. You won’t see any weeds or peeling paint either (which you can find in the Six Flags parks). The proof of whether they truly secretly wanted this law or not will be what they decide to do in court. Disney can amass some overwhelming legal firepower if they chose to fight this. If they don’t, I think it would be prudent to at least go talk to Gov. Polis of CO. Disney may want to seek higher ground, both morally and literally. Fifty years from now, that part of FL could be under water.

      It’s amusing to note that Ft. Bend Co has also extended the invite, although if Abbott is re-elected it’s just going from one state of backwards, regressive politics to another.

    2. My main reaction to Florida removing Disney’s special status is that Disney should have NEVER had that special status in the first place. Bad reason to remove it aside.

      The US has a long history of utopic ‘company towns’. They always end poorly. Disney is exactly the sort of patrician authoritarianism you do not want to see scaled. Those 55 live-in employees have it great unless they are unable to do the job Disney has for them. The rents are high that most people can’t afford to ‘live’ in Disney World for more than about a week, and its entirely prohibitively expensive for the poor. And there’s no long-term approach or facilities for crime, mental health, social services, and any other things that deal with real human behavior.

      It’s easy to look good when you’re literally a theme park, but I know Disney from several sides. As a filmmaker, I know Disney is eating up the possible avenues to self-expression and replacing them with ‘non-political’ ‘globally accessible’ stories that are driving people mad with their lack of values or stakes. I know several people who have worked in Disney peripherals such as Disney World itself, Disney on Ice, and Disney Broadway shows and the strict, patrician authoritarianism that Disney applies to their own private lives.

      An easy comparison to what Disney scaled up would be is China. But I actually think Dubai is a great example. Clean city, great infrastructure, endless square footage of malls, entertainment, gastronomy, luxe goods. And evil and soulless to its core. A terrible place to live, where what you wear or who you fuck or when you drink can get you into trouble so quick friends I knew went from “See you next week!” to “Sorry I had to catch a flight back to the US, let’s connect on social media” in less than 24 hours.

      You could blame that on Islam but nah. Disney’s culture doesn’t allow petitioning, speaking out, expressing yourself in your own way, doing what you want. It’s regimented.

      I’m of course assuming you don’t really mean Disney is a good model or a good government, but your comment leaves enough doubt it must be stated in no unclear terms, Disney is the enemy of good governance and if we want democracy in America to remain robust, Disney’s monopolistic control over media and distribution and entertainment venues and publishing and, as Florida now shows, entire tracts of land, should be pulled apart by antitrust and antimonopoly laws to enable free and open markets of ideas and new competitors.

      Disney’s lack of potholes is paid for by tickets most people these days actually can’t afford. It’s not a symbol of it’s successful governance, but of the fact that pothole-free roads is only for the rich or the corporations in the US. That must be reversed, not turned into a model.

      1. I don’t doubt you could find a legit reason to revoke that special status, and your point about they never should have had it in the first place has merit. but what DeSantis just did is such a blatant violation of 1A, not fighting it is a grave danger. Disney’s opposition to a very bad bill was downright tepid, but this is quite a scary overreaction. Government is expressly forbidden to punish legitimate speech in this manner. The authoritarians are getting too brazen.

  2. it still kills more than 500 people a day
    Due to my self-imposed media diet, I didn’t know this. I feel shocked.

    At the start of the pandemic, I spent hours and hours each day working in my yard. Pleasant work, but I could still hear the ambulances. Lots of them throughout the day. If I’d been told 500 were dying each day in Houston alone, I would have believed it.

    I did read a headline today about grandparents raising their grandkids because the parents died of covid. So much sadness.

    The country has suffered a mighty blow. The people who made it worse will never be called to account. May even be rewarded with political power.

    Me, I am bitter.

    1. I relate to the bitter. I wonder if American society is broken beyond repair. It used to be that you could count on at least enlightened self interest to get things done. I understand why people are irritated about inflation and supply chain issues, but the notion the putting more Rs in office is going to make any of that better may be the dumbest notion I’ve ever seen. The Rs are telling us what they’re going to do. Give them the House, and the nasty chaos goblins (Borbert, Greene, Cawthorn, Gaetz) will run amuck. They may even put the Orange chaos goblin in as Speaker. Expect revenge impeachment articles and nothing getting done. Give them the Senate, and they will block everyone Biden appoints. They’ve announced their intentions to raise taxes on the middle and lower classes, but not the wealthy. A significant number of them would support leaving NATO. The only reason to vote for them that makes any logical sense is that you are so full of spite that you don’t care if they burn it all down.

      I cannot grok this level of spite. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing but contempt for those who remain in the cult of the Ugliest American, even after a botched pandemic response and 1/6. But I don’t want to kill them. I don’t want to burn down their houses at the expense of mine. I wouldn’t burn down their houses even if it was guaranteed mine would be spared. How do we cure people of this irrational spite? They won’t even heed the scriptures they claim to revere.

    2. I’m bitter too. As you said, the death cultists are about to be rewarded by voters handing them back Congress not due to redistricting, but because of “inflation.”

      It’s like, yeah sure getting rid of democracy’s bad, but we’re more concerned about the economy right now, so…

  3. I read yet another article recently about the anti-vax crowd and their willful ignorance. It featured a woman in her 70’s who lost 2 sons in their 50s to Covid. Both refused the vaccine. Their political leanings were not mentioned, but you didn’t need to guess. The mother says, with no trace of irony or awareness, “Nobody knows why this happened.” But of course we do. I cannot feel even one molecule of sympathy for her.

  4. I am reminded from a scene in Star Trek V where Spock and Kirk are discussing the Klingon’s existential problem, and Spock says “They are dying”. Kirk’s response……

    Every dead member of the death cult today means one less potential weapon leveled at a dem in the coming civil war.

    Le Pen has a very real shot at supplanting Marcon in France, in the election going on right now. Having that right-wing extremist in power would be a far worse blow for the civilized world than what is going on in Ukraine. But both those events will be dwarfed by the significance of when the death cult reascends to power in the u.s.

    The more of the insane and stupid that die now, the better.

      1. Yeah, ignoring reality always works.

        Check that. It has worked for the death cult so well, as per the numbers Chris has provided. And the loser party is just as good at ignoring reality, given they can’t read polling data and what people actually care about.

        But by all means, you keep going through life going “la la la” with your hands over your eyes and ears.

      2. And you consider your nonstop calls for authoritarian extrajudicial executions of right-wing individuals are something that’s couched in reality?

        I know things in a lot of places are bad. I read the news. But your complete and utter inability to drag yourself away from your apocalyptic civil war fantasies makes it so that you contribute absolutely nothing constructive or beneficial to any of the discussions at hand. You’re nothing but a churlish troll convinced that he’s right and everyone else is an ignorant sheep. This site would be better off without you.

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