COVID-19 cost 28 million years of life in 31 countries last year - study

A study was done to estimate the changes in life expectancy and years of life lost in 2020 associated with the COVID-19 crisis. 

Roberto Arias prepares a grave for burial at Woodlawn Cemetery during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Everett, Massachusetts, US, May 27, 2020. (photo credit: BRIAN SNYDER/REUTERS)
Roberto Arias prepares a grave for burial at Woodlawn Cemetery during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Everett, Massachusetts, US, May 27, 2020.
(photo credit: BRIAN SNYDER/REUTERS)

More than 28 million years of life were lost in 2020 in 31 countries, according to a study published this week in the peer-reviewed BMJ journal.

The United States was among the countries with the highest number of years of life lost. Israel was among the countries with the least number of years lost, ranking at number nine.

The purpose of the study, which was led by Prof. Nazrul Islam in the United Kingdom, was to estimate the changes in life expectancy and years of life lost in 2020 associated with the COVID-19 crisis.

Islam looked at 37 countries with upper-middle and high incomes, where he felt that the data would be complete and reliable. The reduction in life expectancy was calculated based on the difference between observed and expected life expectancy in 2020, using the Lee-Carter model. Excess years were based on the same calculation but using the World Health Organization standard life table.

“Life expectancy... is an indication of how long, on average, people can expect to survive if the age specific mortality rates remain constant for the remainder of their life,” the report said. “Years of life lost takes into account the age of distributions of mortality by giving greater weights to deaths that occur at younger ages.”

The countries in which life expectancy declined the most were Russia, the United States and Bulgaria. Islam explained that this appears to have been largely affected by a high number of deaths in the younger population, especially among people below 65 years of age.

The highest excess years of life lost per 100,000 population were seen in Bulgaria, Russia, Lithuania, the United States and Poland.

COVID-19 is seen in a blood vessel (Illustrative). (credit: TEL AVIV UNIVERSITY)COVID-19 is seen in a blood vessel (Illustrative). (credit: TEL AVIV UNIVERSITY)

In total, 31 countries lost 222 million years of life, which is 28.1 million more than expected. More years were lost by men than women, according to the study. Moreover, the years of life lost to COVID were more than five times higher than those lost to the flu in 2015, a season that was considered moderately severe.

There were only three countries in which people actually lived longer: New Zealand, Taiwan and Norway. In three countries there was no change in life expectancy: Denmark, Iceland and South Korea.

These six countries also did not have higher than expected years of life lost, the study showed.

Islam said, “Healthcare surely is a critical factor” in why some countries’ life expectancy declined more than others or lost more years of life, but “so is the capacity to respond to emergencies such as the pandemic, and equity in accessing the healthcare services.”

He said the US, in particular, “is known to have widespread inequalities in healthcare accessibility, which might have contributed to such a huge loss in 2020.”

The study was, of course, conducted based on numbers from before vaccination. Israel, for example, started administering doses to its most vulnerable population only at the end of December 2020. As such, the statistics might look even more different this year, based on which countries were able to prevent COVID-19 deaths through inoculation.

The study shows that the pandemic and the policy measures countries took to stop the spread of the virus have had implications for mortality beyond deaths from COVID-19.