How the COVID-19 Pandemic Lowered Life Expectancy in Canada Last Year

Life expectancy measure, while preliminary, helps put the pandemic's 2020 death toll in context

COVID-19 deaths led to a five-month decrease in life expectancy at birth last year, recent data released by Statistics Canada suggest, potentially putting the country at a level not seen in seven years.

The findings varied widely across the country, with Quebec logging a drop in life expectancy of almost a year while the Atlantic provinces and the territories barely saw any change, confirming major differences in the pandemic’s toll by region. Some experts also suggest that life expectancy doesn’t capture the long-term toll of COVID-19.

The numbers released by Statistics Canada are not a reason to hit the panic button, said Marisa Creatore, the associate scientific director at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and an assistant professor in public health at the University of Toronto.

“We’re in the middle of a pandemic, so we would expect that the mortality rates would be a little bit higher right now,” she said, adding it was very unlikely that these rates would continue for the entire lifespan of a baby born today.

The pandemic’s death toll was already clear — more than 25,700 people have died from the virus in Canada since the start of the pandemic, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada — but the hit to life expectancy helps put those losses in context, experts say.

In 2017, the opioid crisis reduced life expectancy by about 0.07 years on average. Canada’s Public Health Agency reported more than 19,300 opioid-related deaths between January 2016 and September 2020.

The HIV epidemic resulted in the deaths of about 18,300 people between 1987 and 2011.

It’s not the first time that a health crisis has impacted Canada’s life expectancy at birth.

In 2017, the opioid crisis reduced life expectancy at birth by 0.07 years, according to Statistics Canada. The Public Health Agency of Canada reported more than 19,300 opioid-related deaths from January 2016 to September 2020.

The country’s HIV epidemic, which led to the deaths of about 18,300 people between 1987 and 2011, also contributed to a small drop.

The main difference this time is that COVID-19 claimed a lot more lives in a much shorter period of time. However, those who died were a lot older on average than during the other two health crises.

To understand the impact of these deaths, Statistics Canada estimated what life expectancy would have been if the pandemic hadn’t happened, and calculated how much it changed when they took into account the COVID-19 mortality rate in 2020.

The agency used 2019’s life expectancy of 82.1 years as a baseline for their calculations, because the actual life expectancy for 2020 won’t be known until the number of non-COVID deaths for that year is available.

Life expectancy is used to measure the overall health of a population and can help determine how well a country or region is doing compared to other places.

Canada is doing better than the United States and many other European countries, including France, Italy and Spain, when it comes to this indicator, Statistics Canada found. But it fared worse than Germany, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Australia and New Zealand.

While the agency did not compile estimates for other countries, they used data published by them to make this comparison, said Patrice Dion, the author of the study and a statistician at Statistics Canada.

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