February 2021 saw the US pass a grim milestone – over 500,000 COVID-19 related deaths. Michigan deaths topped 15,000, with Detroit accounting for 25% of that total. In the early weeks and months of the COVID-19 pandemic, an alarming data trend was revealed. Case, hospitalization, and death rates were notably higher in Native American, African American and Latino populations than other groups. Here in Michigan, Detroit was hit the hardest. Other urban areas in the state also had higher rates than suburban and rural areas. Since then, the “infection map” has changed to appear more equal but looks can be deceiving. The same communities most harshly impacted early in the pandemic are still faring 2-3 times worse than their counterparts.
A great deal of COVID-19 data has been analyzed in the past year, but a finding released in February was very somber. Due largely to the pandemic, average life expectancy across all groups in America dropped a full year, from 78.8 years to 77.8, the largest decrease since WWII. Men fared worse than women, and non-Hispanic Black males had the largest decrease at 3 years. Hispanic males saw the next greatest decrease at 2.4 years, followed by Black women at 2.3 years. During that same time, White males and women both saw decreases of less than 1 year (0.8 and 0.7 respectively).
You may wonder why an environmental justice group is discussing this issue. The answer is simple – the factors that increase COVID-19 risks are the same factors that underlie many environmental injustices. Social determinants of risk, or the conditions in which people live, work, learn and worship, affect a wide variety of risks and outcomes. Inequities in these determinants, such as poverty and healthcare access, are interrelated to numerous other issues. When these inequities are addressed and equity is increased, poor outcomes can be reduced and society as a whole benefits. If that sounds familiar to our supporters, that’s because these goals are at the heart of our work and mission. These COVID-19 data numbers are very real representations of inequality in action and each “number’ is a real person. We can never forget that.
You can learn more about the life expectancy findings here, and the impacts of COVID-19 on communities of color here and here.