A report released Wednesday provides some early insight into the damage covid-19 has already wrought on one of the hardest-hit regions: New York City. It concludes that the first wave of the outbreak has shaved five years off the life expectancy of NYC residents.
The report was created by Vital Strategies, a nonprofit organisation founded in 2017 by Tom Frieden, former head of the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, and other public health experts. The organisation released the report as part of its Prevent Epidemics initiative, which started in 2018.
To come up with its estimate, the report’s authors first looked at excess deaths reported in New York City between March and May of this year, meaning deaths above the average baseline reported in previous recent years.
Many experts believe that the official death toll of covid-19, in both New York City and around the world, is an underestimate, pointing to evidence of excess deaths in a city or country being higher than reported covid-19 deaths. Not all of these excess deaths may turn out to be caused by covid-19, but they could still reflect the indirect effects of the pandemic on people’s health. In New York City, there have been at least 24,000 excess deaths reported during the outbreak as of May 4, according to the New York City Department of Health, with 80 per cent being recorded as confirmed or probable covid-19 deaths.
The authors tried to calculate the impact that these excess deaths, up until May 14, have had on the life expectancy of New Yorkers, using the latest 2017 figures. That year, life expectancy for someone born in New York City was estimated to be 81.2 years. But the outbreak, the authors estimated, has led to a drop in life expectancy of five years.
“This should be seen as a preliminary estimate of the potential scale of the impact as there will be more deaths due to covid-19, our methods were simple and the limited amount of publicly available data required us to make many assumptions,” the authors wrote.
Life expectancy at birth is regularly used as a way to keep track of a population’s overall health. The lower it gets, the more people in that area are dying of preventable causes, such as infectious disease. Past massive outbreaks of disease, like the 1918-1919 pandemic flu and outbreaks of HIV in Africa, have similarly led to temporary drops in life expectancy, the authors noted.
Some people, including politicians and health officials, have argued or implied that those dying from covid-19 were already in poor health and unlikely to live for much longer anyway. Leaving aside the cruelty of devaluing a person’s life based on their age or health, that probably isn’t even true: Studies have tried to estimate the average years of life lost to covid-19, finding that people who were killed by the disease may have lived on average up to a decade longer.
While much of the world appears to be containing the pandemic and eyeing a gradual recovery to normalcy, including New York City, it’s likely that many more people will continue to die from the coronavirus for the foreseeable future. As of May 20, at least 325,000 people worldwide have died of covid-19, according to Johns Hopkins.