COVID halted global life expectancy gains

Woman on train wearing mask. | Newsreel
The COVID-19 pandemic set back global life expectancy. | Photo: Craig RJD (iStock)

The COVID-19 pandemic wiped our nearly a decade of global life expectancy gains.

New data from the World Health Organisation (WHO) shows the pandemic reversed a trend of steady gains in life expectancy.

The latest World Health Statistics revealed the current state of life expectancy at birth and healthy life expectancy at birth (HALE).

The report found the pandemic wiped out nearly a decade of progress in improving life expectancy within just two years.

WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said between 2019 and 2021, global life expectancy dropped by 1.8 years to 71.4 years, which was back to the level of 2012.

“Similarly, global healthy life expectancy dropped by 1.5 years to 61.9 years in 2021, (also) back to the level of 2012,” Dr Ghebreyesus said.

He said the 2024 report also highlighted how the effects had been felt unequally across the world.

“The WHO regions for the Americas and South-East Asia were hit hardest, with life expectancy dropping by approximately three years and healthy life expectancy by 2.5 years between 2019 and 2021.

“In contrast, the Western Pacific Region was minimally affected during the first two years of the pandemic, with losses of less than 0.1 years in life expectancy and 0.2 years in healthy life expectancy.

Dr Ghebreyesus said COVID-19 rapidly emerged as a leading cause of death, ranking as the third highest cause of mortality globally in 2020 and the second in 2021.

“Nearly 13 million lives were lost during this period. The latest estimates reveal that except in the African and Western Pacific regions, COVID-19 was among the top five causes of deaths, notably becoming the leading cause of death in the Americas for both years.”

The WHO report also highlighted that noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) such as ischemic heart disease and stroke, cancers, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, and diabetes were the biggest killers before the pandemic, responsible for 74 percent of all deaths in 2019.

“Even during the pandemic, NCDs continued to account for 78 percent of non-COVID deaths,” Dr Ghebreyesus said.

Elsewhere in the report it was noted that the world faced a massive and complex problem of a double burden of malnutrition, where undernutrition coexisted with overweight and obesity.

“In 2022, over one billion people aged five years and older were living with obesity, while more than half a billion were underweight,” Dr Ghebreyesus said.

“Malnutrition in children was also striking, with 148 million children under five years old affected by stunting (too short for age), 45 million suffering from wasting (too thin for height), and 37 million overweight.”

He said the report further highlighted the significant health challenges faced by persons with disabilities, refugees and migrants.

“In 2021, about 1.3 billion people, or 16 percent of the global population, had disability. This group is disproportionately affected by health inequities resulting from avoidable, unjust and unfair conditions.”

Read the full World Health Statistics report.