Power & Market

Covid and Life Expectancy

Power & Market Mark Avis

How dangerous is Covid? Two recent articles (see here and here) on mises.org suggest that what we are witnessing is hysteria. Both articles examined age-standardized mortality statistics for the US and UK respectively. In the UK, the 2020 mortality rate was at a similar level to 2008, and for the US the mortality rate was at around the same rate as 2004. The obvious question to then ask is whether 2004 in the US or 2008 in the UK saw panic and extreme authoritarian measures to protect public health. We know the answer; none of this took place.

A recent study provides further evidence that the anti-Covid measures that are being taken by governments around the world are grossly disproportionate and are the result of hysteria in which all sense of proportion has been abandoned.1 The study in question examines the impact of Covid on life expectancy in 29 countries (Western Europe, US, Chile). As the authors describe, it is a measure of life expectancy from birth and they describe it as providing “a timely description of current mortality patterns.” The authors note that most countries in the West have seen consistent gains in life expectancy, with the UK and US sitting as outliers with barely any recent improvements. The following provides the big picture of their results:

“To contextualize, it took on average 5.6 years for these countries to achieve a 1-year increase in life expectancy recently: progress wiped out over the course of 2020 by COVID-19. For Western European countries such as Spain, England & Wales, Italy and Belgium, among others, the last time such large magnitudes of losses were observed in a single year was during World War II.”

Note here the reference to World War II, which I will return to. The actual outcomes of change in life expectancy varied from country to country. Denmark and Norway saw no drop in life expectancy, but the “biggest losses of 1.5 years or more of life expectancy at birth were documented among males in the USA, Lithuania, Bulgaria and Poland, and females in the USA and Spain.” As would be expected from what is already well-known about Covid, the majority of the reduction in life expectancy came from a higher mortality rate in the elderly population. Note that the US also had poor age-standardized mortality rates in comparison with the UK (see above) and also does poorly in the research on life expectancy.*

The authors provide a perspective for their findings by highlighting research on the 2014-15 influenza season.2 Again, there were different outcomes for different countries, but influenza reduced years of life expectancy, with the following some of the more severely impacted (given as loss of years of life expectancy): Italy 0.55, Germany 0.36, Belgium 0.36, Finland 0.34, UK 0.26 and the US 0.13. Some countries were barely impacted at all, with Denmark losing just 0.02 and Norway 0.05, reflecting similarly small impacts for influenza.

To give perspective to their perspective, 2014-15 was a bad flu season, but far from being the worst.3 There was the Spanish flu that followed World War I, but also serious flu pandemics in 1957, 1968, and 1977. The quote below, taken from a review of influenza pandemics, gives a sense of the potential severity of influenza4 :

Similar to the Asian flu, the Hong Kong flu is estimated to have caused between 500,000 and two million deaths worldwide. Mortality rates were low, which may have been due to pre-existing immunity to the neuraminidase antigen (N2), the same as the previously circulating influenza strain. Still, during the two pandemic waves, the United States experienced a 47% increase in mortality related to pneumonia and influenza and a 6.6% increase in all-cause mortality; in Canada, these figures were somewhat lower at 43% and 3.6%, respectively. However, the pandemic burden was higher in other countries, with increases in excess all-cause mortality of 9.1% (Australia), 11.9% (France), and 13.0% (England and Wales) over the previous year’s baseline. These differences indicate the geographic heterogeneity of pandemic impact.

So the perspective of the 2014-15 flu is only based on the most recent bad flu season and thus provides a very, very limited perspective. As it is, in the worst case for the 2014-15 flu season, Italy lost just over half a year of life expectancy. Other countries lost a third. This is compared with the loss of about a year overall of life expectancy in the Covid pandemic. And 2014-15 was far from the worst flu season that the world has experienced.

With the perspective on the perspective now provided, how bad was the 2020 Covid pandemic? The first point to note is that the authors frame the pandemic as catastrophic throughout their paper, exemplified by the reference to World War II. However, their research suggests that their framing is another example of Covid hysteria. As they observe, the pandemic has, on average, wiped out a one-year increase in life expectancy, with an average of 5.6 years to achieve the one-year increase. Depending on the country, this means for most countries, life expectancy has dropped back to levels seen in the last decade (i.e. life expectancy for one country may have dropped back to 2013, another to 2012, and another to 2018. In the worst cases, their figures will show life expectancy dropping back to levels of the 2000s). However, in all cases, there was no extreme public health panic during these prior times, no lockdowns, or death count tickers on the nightly news.

Not even in Italy in 2014-15 when the flu season saw the loss of over half a year of life expectancy.

The figures for age-standardized mortality and life expectancy point in the same direction; mortality rates have worsened but not by any amount that can justify what is taking place. The response to Covid is entirely disproportionate and deserves to be called the Covid hysteria. The harms that have flowed from the Covid hysteria are so broad-ranging that they are nearly impossible to comprehend. The economic shock to the world is still playing out. The cost in terms of personal freedom and the expansion of government power is both extraordinary and may be hard to reverse. It may take years to see the full health costs of lockdowns (the 2021 statistics will likely start to capture some of these). There are also the harms that are often personal and which will never be quantified. The harms and costs flowing from the response to Covid will be with us all long after the panic is forgotten.

All of this harm is taking place based on hysteria. And the harms are ongoing and the costs continue to accrue.

Note:  The study on life expectancy did not, it appears, control for demographic change over the period studied.

  • 1Aburto, J. M., Schöley, J., Kashnitsky, I., Zhang, L., Rahal, C., Missov, T. I., . . . Kashyap, R. (2021). Quantifying impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic through life-expectancy losses: a population-level study of 29 countries. International journal of epidemiology: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8500096/
  • 2Ho, J. Y., & Hendi, A. S. (2018). Recent trends in life expectancy across high income countries: retrospective observational study. BMJ, 362: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6092679/
  • 3Palese, P. (2004). Influenza: old and new threats. Nature medicine, 10(12), S82-S87: https://www.nature.com/articles/nm1141
  • 4Saunders-Hastings, P. R., & Krewski, D. (2016). Reviewing the History of Pandemic Influenza: Understanding Patterns of Emergence and Transmission. Pathogens, 5(4), 66: https://www.mdpi.com/2076-0817/5/4/66
Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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