Although James Toussaint has never had COVID-19, the pandemic is taking a profound toll on his health. First, the 57-year-old lost his job delivering parts for a New Orleans auto dealership in spring 2020, when the local economy shut down. Then, he fell behind on his rent. Last month, Toussaint was forced out of his apartment when his landlord—who refused to accept federally-funded rental assistance—found a loophole in the federal ban on evictions.
Toussaint has recently had trouble controlling his blood pressure. Arthritis in his back and knees prevents him from lifting more than 20 pounds, a huge obstacle for a manual laborer. He worries about what will happen when his unemployment benefits from the federal government run out, which could come as early as July 31. “I’ve been homeless before,” says Toussaint, who found a room to rent nearby after his eviction. “I don’t want to be homeless again.”
With coronavirus infections falling in the U.S., many people are eager to put the pandemic behind them. But it has inflicted wounds that won’t quickly heal. In addition to killing 600,000 in the U.S. and afflicting an estimated 3.4 million or more with persistent symptoms, the pandemic threatens the health of vulnerable people devastated by the loss of jobs, homes, and opportunities for the future. It will, almost certainly, cast a long shadow on American health, leading millions of people to live sicker and die younger due to increasing rates of poverty, hunger, and housing insecurity.
In particular, it will exacerbate the discrepancies already seen in the country between the wealth and health of Black and Hispanic Americans and those of white Americans. Indeed, new research published June 23 in BMJ shows just how wide that gap has grown. According to the study, life expectancy across the country plummeted by nearly two years from 2018 to 2020, the most significant decline since 1943, when American troops were dying in World War II. But while white Americans lost 1.36 years, Black Americans lost 3.25 years, and Hispanic Americans lost 3.88 years. Given that life expectancy typically varies only by a month or two from year to year, losses of this magnitude are “pretty catastrophic,” says Dr. Steven Woolf, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and lead author of the study.
Over the two years included in the study, the average loss of life expectancy in the U.S. was nearly nine times greater than the average in 16 other developed nations, whose residents can now expect to live 4.7 years longer than Americans. Compared with their peers in other countries, Americans died not only in more significant numbers but at younger ages during this period.