Stark new figures from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) are highlighting the toll COVID-19 has taken in many countries, specifically when it comes to increased deaths, reduced life expectancy, and worse mental health.
The OECD, an international organization aimed at combatting poverty through economic policies, analyzed various well-being metrics of 30 member countries in its Health at a Glance 2021 report. Some of those countries included Australia, Chile, Germany, Japan, Mexico, Spain, Turkey, the U.K., and the U.S. Overall, the report says that life expectancy dropped in 24 of the 30 countries between 2019 and 2020. This includes the U.S., which saw a life expectancy decrease of 1.6 years—the most of any country studied. On average, the report found, the 30 OECD countries studied reported 16% more “excess deaths” due to the coronavirus during 2020 and the first half of 2021. Ultimately, that amounts to 2.5 million additional people who died—both directly and indirectly because of the coronavirus—beyond what was expected during that time frame.
Pre-pandemic, the U.S. already lagged behind other nations when it comes to long lives for its citizens. In many European countries, the average person lives to be 80 years or more. The U.S. has never exceeded 79 years of life expectancy. And life expectancy is worse by several years for Black Americans, among various other marginalized groups. This, unfortunately, isn’t surprising.
COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths haven’t been evenly spread across all groups, the report acknowledges. “More than 90% of recorded COVID-19 deaths have occurred among those aged 60 and over. There has also been a clear social gradient, with disadvantaged people, those living in deprived areas, and most ethnic minorities and immigrants at higher risk of infection and death.”
Unfortunately, even for those who survive COVID-19, a subset will struggle with long-term symptoms, and countries will need to figure out how to support them. “In the United States, recent research has estimated that 37% of patients suffered from at least one long COVID-19 symptom four to six months after diagnosis,” the report says. (Worth noting: Getting fully vaccinated can significantly reduce a person’s risk of dealing with long COVID.)
Another unsurprising but sobering finding worth emphasizing: The stress and grief brought by the pandemic have contributed to markedly worse mental health for many people—U.S. rates of depression and anxiety more than doubled, according to the report, and they were especially severe for people who faced financial hardship.
Kids have been struggling, too. Between April and October 2020, the number of people under the age of 18 who visited emergency departments for mental health concerns increased by more than 24% compared to 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A coalition of leading experts recently declared a national state of emergency for child and adolescent mental health.
“We are caring for young people with soaring rates of depression, anxiety, trauma, loneliness, and suicidality that will have lasting impacts on them, their families, and their communities,” they wrote.
“Good mental health is vital for people to be able to lead healthy, productive lives,” the OECD report emphasizes. “Despite the significant social and labor market impacts of mental ill health, mental health support remains weakly integrated into social welfare, labor, and youth policies.”
The report’s findings aren’t likely to come as a real surprise to anyone who’s lived through this pandemic. But they offer validation to what so many of us have experienced and provide useful data to our governments on how we can best move forward.