What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

Battered by the pandemic, communities of color experience sharp drop in life expectancies

The pandemic's toll was highlighted in stark terms again Thursday as the expected life spans fell in the U.S. by a year on average in the first half of 2020. It is the largest drop since World War II, and gaps along racial lines are profound. Dr. Reed Tuckson, Washington, D.C.'s former public health commissioner and a leader in the Black coalition against Covid-19, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The toll of the pandemic is highlighted in stark terms again today.

    A government report finds that expected life spans fell in this country by a year on average in the first half of 2020. That is the largest drop since World War II. Overdoses, heart attacks and other illnesses are part of that. But researchers say the pandemic undoubtedly is a major factor.

    Moreover, the gaps along racial lines are profound. White life expectancy fell by about eight months, while black Americans lost 2.7 years of average life expectancy. Among Latinos, life expectancy dropped by nearly two years.

    And these numbers are even larger among men. Experts say that this points to major socioeconomic disparities.

    And we're going to focus on that tonight.

    Dr. Reed Tuckson is a former commissioner of public health here in Washington, D.C., who now has his own firm. He is one of the leaders of the Black Coalition Against COVID-19.

    Dr. Tuckson, thank you very much for joining us tonight. We appreciate it.

    First of all, overall, as you look at these numbers broadly, are they surprising?

  • Dr. Reed Tuckson:

    They are not surprising.

    We have known and experienced this excess exposure of African Americans to the COVID pandemic. We knew that we were dying three times more often — two times more often than the rest of the country and being hospitalized three times more.

    So, it is not surprising. However, it still does not dim the sadness, the pain, the heartache that comes with looking at these quantitative numbers that are really describing in mathematical ways the feelings and emotions that we have had all along.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, when you see, Dr. Tuckson, as you mentioned, Black Americans, the average drop life expectancy three times that what it is for white Americans, among Latinos, it is two times the drop that it is for white Americans, why is this?

  • Dr. Reed Tuckson:

    Well, we know first of all, that African Americans are exposed to this virus more often than other people, because of the nature of the jobs that we have, that so many of us are the ones on the front lines in running our buses and subways, in the retail industry, the ones cleaning our streets.

    We are the ones who are more often unable to practice — make our livelihood by being at home and working online. So we are much more exposed.

    Number two, the conditions under which so many African Americans live make it very difficult to fight off this COVID pandemic. We are often — more often living in crowded housing with multigenerational families. We have much less opportunity to do the social distancing that we would have wanted to have done.

    And then, third and finally, a major element is that, preexisting, we were suffering from preexisting chronic health issues, more heart disease, more lung disease, more diabetes, more obesity. And all of those, as we have learned from the beginning of the pandemic, predisposed to poorer outcomes when are you finally infected with the COVID-19 virus.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It is so interesting that a number of the things you're discussing are parallel to what we heard from Dr. Bullard a few minutes ago in discussing why communities of color are disproportionately affected by these terrible winter storms and the conditions that come from them.

    But, Dr. Tuckson, what about just in terms of health care services, and what is available and what isn't in communities of color.

  • Dr. Reed Tuckson:

    Well, first of all, I think it is very important to go back to the point you are making about Dr. Bullard and the comments that he made.

    Remember that health is the place that all of the social forces converge to express themselves with the greatest clarity and importance. Health is where everything comes together. So, when we think about the health outcomes of people of color, it's not just medical care. It is very of the social determinants that lead to health outcomes, housing, economic instability, education, challenging access to healthy foods, community environments that are filled with stress and are not safe.

    Then we come to the quality of care. And that point is very important. We have known now for 20 years, since the publication of a major National Academy of Medicine study called "Unequal Treatment," that the delivery of health care to people of color is suboptimal compared to white America, for a variety of reasons.

    And so this is a longstanding challenge that, unfortunately, the health care industry has yet to be able to fully and adequately address.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And I think part of what is so striking — and I was looking at the numbers this afternoon — is that, among Black Americans, life expectancy had actually been improving. It had been increasing in the last couple of decades.

    So, this is a really stark turn in the direction of where we want to see these numbers go. Does it tell you — I mean, we all know the country was caught off-guard, was not prepared for this pandemic.

    Do you believe there are going to be clear lessons we can learn, we can do something with coming out of this pandemic?

  • Dr. Reed Tuckson:

    I hope so.

    And I hope the first lesson that we learn — and this pandemic has shone such a bright light — is that each of us as individuals live in the context of a community of other people, so that when we choose as individuals to exert a right not to wear a mask and don't care that we could easily sicken or cause someone else to die, that is a major issue now of an ethical and moral nature in front of the society.

    If we have learned anything, it is that we have to begin to focus our attention on empathy and love, a concern and caring for everyone. For Black people, this is particularly important, because we now realize that Black people have — because of a history of deeply planted seeds of distrust, and those seeds being watered every day by our experience in living our lives in American society, that that distrust leads to very negative behaviors.

    It leads us to make decisions sometimes that are contrary to our best interests. And so now we know that, as we go forward, that we have learned the lesson that we have to bond together. And, certainly, the health enterprise, the researchers, the clinicians and the health policy experts, have got to come together now and try to do everything we can with the rest of our society to overcome this distrust, because this distrust is not just an idle emotion. Distrust leads to death.

    And then finally I think what this does is to focus everyone's attention on getting at these structural racism issues, these social determinants of health that were always present in creating excess experiences with disease and death, but now we know what it does for a pandemic like COVID-19.

    And, hopefully, it will now regenerate a much greater focus on getting at these root and fundamental causes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, it is certainly something that we at the "NewsHour" are committed to continue to cover. And, again, so stark seeing these numbers over just the first half of 2020, seeing the life expectancy change, incredibly discouraging.

    Dr. Reed Tuckson, thank you very much.

  • Reed Tuckson:

    Thank you.

Listen to this Segment