This chart is an attempt to visually convey the degree to which the rapidly-evolving COVID pandemic is and will continue to undermine Canadians’ life expectancy. Given that Statistics Canada, the only credible source for Canadian life expectancy data, requires two to three years to publish their authoritative numbers, this, like any prediction, can at best only be based on reasonable assumptions.
The starting point for this chart was long-term historical data. Life expectancy at birth is a standard, quality-of-life statistic available for all countries from many sources such as the World Bank. My starting point was a long-term chart published by Statista which showed a very rapid rise though the first half of the 20th century, primarily driven by infant mortality reductions. By 1950, that rise became less steep with the main drivers being increased prosperity and better medical care. Over fully six decades, from 1950 to 2010, the rate of improvement held remarkably steady at 2.2 years per decade. That improvement, projected ahead, is the basis for this chart’s green “Expected” line, essentially indicating what we had every reason to look forward to had all else been equal, based on continuing medical progress.
The first hit on that rosy outlook was a continued but significantly slower rate of improvement following the 2009 financial crisis, after which the Canada’s political and economic decision-making became more conservative, resulting in the current trend of ever-increasing income inequality which translates into poorer long-term health and therefore lower life expectancy for the less privileged in our society. The red “Actual” line in this chart was taken directly from the corresponding Statistics Canada table for 2010 through 2020, supplemented by a special report published in January 2022.
As documented in that special report, the unprecedented COVID death toll in 2020, especially among seniors in long-term care facilities, resulted in the first serious life expectancy drop in Canadian history. From that point forward, this chart is based on the assumptions summarized below.
What is known is officially recorded COVID-related deaths to date: 15,736 in 2020; 14,584 in 2021 and 15,850 thus far in 2022 (to October 20). Despite Omicron’s death rate being lower than its predecessors, every more people are being infected. As a result, 2022 deaths to date are running 23% higher than during the same period in 2021. Official COVID deaths are also known to have been seriously underestimated starting in 2022. Based on expected mortality, biostatisticians have estimated that, for example, Saskatchewan’s actual COVID death toll was 50% greater than reported and BC’s twice as high. Most provinces only count deaths within 30 days of a first positive test. Only Manitoba and Quebec have been routinely doing post-mortem COVID testing. But all such deaths will eventually be factored into life expectancy.
The balance of the chart is based on assumptions with respect to the cumulative impact on our bodies’ health of multiple successive COVID bouts. A recent major study on the outcomes of COVID reinfection analyzed the longer-term consequences of a second bout on a quarter-million US veterans found that mortality rates, hospitalizations and major organ system dysfunctions six months after their most recent COVID infections were two to three times higher in those for whom it was their second bout. The few who had already had three or more bouts fared even worse. As reported in our October 22 weekly update, the majority of Canadians have succumbed to at least one Omicron infection already this year and the now-rapidly-spreading XRR variant can easily infect even those fully-vaccinated individuals with immunity stemming from a recent BA.5 or other Omicron infection. It is therefore reasonable to assume that Canadians who choose not to resume taking reasonable precautions can expect to endure two to three bouts annually until and unless an effective vaccine capable of protecting again all current and future is developed and widely administered. On the further assumption that such a vaccine is at least three to four years away, the chart projects the impact on life expectancy over the next four years for individuals who suffer between one and ten bouts over that period.
Further assumptions underlying those projections include the following:
- When the Canadian life expectancy numbers for 2021 and 2022 are released, they will show a modest continuing decline of 0.2 years in each of those years [based on continuing high death rates coupled with Omicron’s much higher numbers of new infections offsetting its lower mortality].
- Life expectancy for the few who have still not succumbed to COVID infection by 2026 is unlikely to bounce back given little appetite on the part of governments for addressing income inequality coupled with increasingly difficult economic, environmental, social and political conditions.
- For the purpose of this chart, people are assumed on average to lose 0.3 years of life expectancy from the longer-term systemic health impacts of their first COVID bout and 0.5 years for each subsequent one.
While the above assumptions are necessary arbitrary because the supporting data quite simply do not yet exist, I suspect that they may turn out to be overly conservative. For example, it would be reasonable to expect that the loss of life expectancy will increase more than linearly with each successive bout.
It is worth considering that the lost years over the life expectancy we could have reasonably expected to enjoy back in 2010 will primarily be what should have been healthy times spent being grandparents and actively engaged senior citizens, and not so much the difficult final years of rapid decline. Tragically, tallying the projected cost in lost years across the Canadian population adds up to the equivalent of millions of human lifetimes. That’s the price we pay for continuing to re-elect MPs and MPPs for whom prioritizing their personal careers by going along with party discipline takes precedence over serving the real needs of their constituents.
October 22, 2022