More than 20.5 million years of life may have been lost to the coronavirus pandemic in 81 countries of the world, according to a new study that exposes the fallacy that those who die would have soon done so even if they had not caught Covid-19.
While Covid deaths are often compared dismissively to those from flu, which kills many elderly and frail individuals every year, the study shows the coronavirus has taken a significantly greater toll. In those countries that are badly affected, the number of years of life lost to Covid is between two and nine times more than from seasonal flu.
Years of life lost is the difference between an individual’s age at death and their life expectancy. Men have fared substantially worse than women – their years of life lost were 44% higher. Even though it is older people who are most at risk of dying in richer countries, the greatest number of years of life lost was among people between the ages of 55 and 75.
Counting deaths can give the wrong idea of the impact of Covid-19, say the authors of the study published in the journal Scientific Reports.
“Several policy responses (or non-responses) have been motivated with the argument that Covid-19 is mostly killing individuals who, even in the absence of Covid-19, would have had few life years remaining,” writes Héctor Pifarré i Arolas of the Centre for Research in Health and Economics at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, Spain, and international colleagues in the study.
“We wanted to provide a measure that was a response to that sort of criticism,” Pifarré told the Guardian.
In the UK, they found that 833,874 years of life were lost to the pandemic – an average of 11.4 per person (11.5 for men and 10.8 for women). In Spain, 572,567 years of life had been lost, an average of 11.24. In Peru, 764,856 lives had been lost, an average per person of 20.2.
The researchers looked at heart disease, which also causes premature death. They found that more years were lost to heart disease than to Covid. However, the toll of excess deaths in countries – the total increase in deaths from year to year – masked an increase in deaths from heart disease also.
Using data on just those deaths confirmed as from Covid-19 underestimated years of life lost by a factor of 3, compared with calculating from excess deaths.
“Variation across countries is large; in Belgium the two approaches deliver comparable results, but for Croatia, Greece and South Korea the excess deaths approach suggests that we may underestimate the YLL [years of life lost] by a factor of more than 12,” they write. “The majority of those years are from individuals with significant remaining life expectancy.”
They found that a larger proportion of years of life lost in wealthier countries was from older people, but in low and middle-income countries, the greatest loss of years of life was from individuals who died at 55 or younger.
Men were disproportionately likely to die from Covid before their time than women. The authors say the discrepancy could justify policies focused on supporting men’s health. Eliminating the gender gap would require a 34% reduction in male deaths, they write. “This suggests that gender-specific policies might be equally well justified as those based on age,” they say.
The researchers took into account more than 1,279,866 deaths in 81 countries, as well as life expectancy data and projections for total deaths of Covid-19 by country. They estimate that in total, 20,507,518 years of life may have been lost due to Covid-19 in the 81 countries included in the study – an average of 16 years for each individual death. Of the total years of life lost, 44.9% appears to have occurred in individuals between 55 and 75 years of age, 30.2% in individuals younger than 55, and 25% in those older than 75.