New data draws one of the gravest illustrations to date of how the pandemic has overwhelmingly affected Hispanics, showing that they experienced a far steeper drop in life expectancy in 2020 than white Americans.

The COVID-19 pandemic drove average Hispanic life expectancies in the U.S. down by about three years in 2020, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hispanic males saw the largest decrease among all U.S. populations, with life expectancies dropping 3.7 years.

The CDC report is perhaps the clearest example yet of the minority health disparities that have plagued North America for decades and been extended further due to the pandemic.

Overall, the pandemic drove average life expectances in the U.S. down by about 18 months last year, marking the largest annual decline since World War II.

A Disproportionate Impact

Life expectancy among all U.S. Hispanics declined more than any other ethnic group last year. U.S. Hispanics – who typically have a longer life expectancy that non-Hispanic white Americans and Black Americans – saw the largest decline in life expectancy during the pandemic, dropping three years from 81.8 years in 2019 to 78.8 years in 2020. Hispanic males saw the biggest decline, dropping 3.7 years.

Overall, Americans are now expected to live an average of 77.3 years, down from 78.8 years in 2019, according to the report.

COVID-19 was responsible for 90 percent of the decline among Hispanics, whereas it accounted for 75 percent of the decline in the general population.

Why the Disparity?

The narrowing of the life expectancy gap between white and Hispanic populations “is a stark indicator of worsening health and mortality outcomes for a (Hispanic) population that paradoxically has been, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, able to defy expectations consistent with its disadvantaged socioeconomic profile,” the report said.

“They were at greater risk of getting infected,” Elizabeth Arias, the lead author of the report said in an interview. “People working in the service sector were not able to telework.”

Hispanics are largely overrepresented in jobs that were deemed essential during pandemic lockdowns, exposing them to the virus more than office employees who could work from home.

“(People of color) were getting infected and that has a lot to do with their status in society,” Arias said.

A Reflection of Many Factors

The coronavirus “uncovered the deep racial and ethnic inequities in access to health, and I don’t think that we’ve ever overcome them,” said Dr. Mary T. Bassett, a former New York City health commissioner and professor of health and human rights at Harvard University, who characterized the findings as devastating but unsurprising. “To think that we’ll just bounce back from them seems a bit wishful thinking.”

According to a review of the CDC data in the New York Times:

Racial and ethnic disparities have persisted throughout the pandemic, a reflection of many factors, including the differences in overall health and available health care between white, Hispanic and Black people in the United States. Black and Hispanic Americans were more likely to be employed in risky, public-facing jobs during the pandemic — bus drivers, restaurant cooks, sanitation workers — rather than working on laptops from the relative safety of their homes.

They also more commonly depend on public transportation, risking coronavirus exposure, or live in multigenerational homes and in tighter conditions that are more conducive to spreading the virus.

“If it was just the pandemic and we were able to take control of that and reduce the numbers of excess deaths, they may be able to gain some of the loss,” Dr. Arias said. But additional deaths may emerge as a result of people missing regular doctor visits for other health conditions during the pandemic.

“We may be seeing the indirect effects of the pandemic for some time to come,” she said.

What Can Be Done?

The pandemic has proven to be a communications emergency as much as a medical crisis.

Misinformation fills the void in the absence of in-language communication. Mistrust is often the result.

Stemming COVID-19 – not just among Hispanics, but in all minority communities – begins with clear communication of safety information, as well as information about the vaccine and its availability.

The best communications plans include translation of the written word, as well as the availability of interpretation services for non-English speakers.

Please let us know if we can be of service. It begins with a conversation. We invite you to contact us today for a consultation on your COVID-19 communication plan. 

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