COVID-19 Erased a Decade of Life Expectancy Gains – WHO

By Francis Allan L. Angelo

The COVID-19 pandemic has undone nearly a decade of progress in global life expectancy, according to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) latest World Health Statistics report for 2024.

The report, released today, underscores the pandemic’s severe impact on life expectancy and health equity worldwide.

Between 2019 and 2021, global life expectancy dropped by 1.8 years to 71.4 years, while healthy life expectancy fell by 1.5 years to 61.9 years, reverting both metrics to 2012 levels.

“The pandemic erased a decade of gains in life expectancy in just two years,” stated Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General.

The report highlights that the pandemic’s effects were unevenly distributed, with the Americas and South-East Asia experiencing the most significant declines. Life expectancy in these regions fell by approximately three years, and healthy life expectancy decreased by 2.5 years. In contrast, the Western Pacific Region saw minimal impact, with losses of less than 0.1 years in life expectancy.

“There continues to be major progress in global health, with billions of people enjoying better health, better access to services, and better protection from health emergencies,” said Dr. Tedros. “But we must remember how fragile progress can be.”

Noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) remained the leading cause of death, responsible for 74% of all deaths in 2019. During the pandemic, NCDs continued to account for 78% of non-COVID deaths. The report also noted the significant rise of COVID-19 as a leading cause of death, ranking third in 2020 and second in 2021, resulting in nearly 13 million deaths.

The WHO also addressed the global double burden of malnutrition, with over one billion people aged five and older living with obesity and more than half a billion underweight in 2022. Child malnutrition remains a critical issue, with 148 million children under five years old affected by stunting, 45 million suffering from wasting, and 37 million overweight.

Furthermore, the report sheds light on the challenges faced by persons with disabilities, refugees, and migrants. In 2021, 1.3 billion people, or 16% of the global population, had disabilities and were disproportionately affected by health inequities.

Access to healthcare for refugees and migrants remains limited, with only half of the 84 countries surveyed providing government-funded health services to these groups at comparable levels to their citizens.

Despite these setbacks, there has been some progress towards the Triple Billion targets and health-related Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Since 2018, an additional 1.5 billion people achieved better health and well-being. However, challenges such as rising obesity, high tobacco use, and persistent air pollution continue to hinder progress.

Dr. Samira Asma, WHO Assistant Director-General for Data, Analytics and Delivery for Impact, emphasized the importance of data in accelerating progress.

“While we have made progress towards the Triple Billion targets since 2018, a lot still needs to be done. Data is WHO’s superpower. We need to use it better to deliver more impact in countries.”

The WHO’s report calls for redoubled efforts to achieve health-related SDGs by 2030, stressing the need for robust global health security measures and equitable health systems to protect long-term health investments and promote equity.


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