Life expectancy: socialist China advances; the US retreats

By Martin Woodley

The singular finding of the recent findings on life expectancy in the US as reported in the New York Times and Washington Post is the fact that contrary to almost all other countries, life expectancy in the US has been stagnating since around 2011. Like most wealthy countries the US experienced a precipitous decline in life expectancy between 2019 and 2020 due to the effects of the pandemic. The pandemic accounted for 50 percent of the decline in life expectancy, with people of colour generally experiencing greater declines overall, and particularly among the native American population. Figure 1 shows a comparison between Hispanic, Non-Hispanic white, and Non-Hispanic black populations for the 2019 to 2020 decrease.

Figure 1: Life expectancy at birth, by Hispanic origin and race: United States, 2019 and 2020. Source: Provisional Life Expectancy Estimates for 2020; Vital Statistics Rapid Release Report No. 015; Elizabeth Arias, et al; July 2021.

In 2021 the life expectancy for Non-Hispanic black men declined further to 66.7 years, whereas for Non-Hispanic whites it was 73.7 years. On these measures, Non-Hispanic black men would be ranked alongside Pakistani men – Pakistan is ranked at 150 in a list of countries ranked by life expectancy. Non-Hispanic white men would be ranked alongside Cuba which sits at 45 in the table. Native American men would be ranked alongside Burkina Faso, which is a 173 in the table. The US as a whole is ranked at 46 in the table.

The status of the US as the world’s most advanced country therefore hides the extremes of inequality that exist between different sections of the population. This has the effect of producing a very inefficient healthcare system, which impacts the life expectancy measure. Figure 2 shows life expectancy against health expenditure per capita and demonstrates that a whole host of peer countries with lower per capita health expenditures than the US produce much higher life expectancy.

Figure 2: Life expectancy vs health expenditure per capita.

However, The precipitous decline between 2019 and 2020 has continued between 2020 and 2021 in the US, signalling that the pandemic continues to take a terrible toll in the US as opposed to most other rich countries. In fact, well over one million Covid-19 deaths have occurred in the US, almost twice as many as the next highest toll which is India. However, India has four times the population of the US, so that proportionately Covid-19 has a much lower effect on life expectancy in India as it does in the US. The US decline in life expectancy at birth is the biggest continuous decline since the 1920s. For Native Americans, life expectancy in 2021 plummeted to 65, the age of eligibility for Medicare.

Figure 3 shows a comparison of the US as a whole with peer countries, and again a comparison between US Hispanic, Non-Hispanic white and Non-Hispanic black between 2010 and 2020. It can be seen that while the Hispanic population has a higher life expectancy, the decline in life expectancy from 2018 to 2020 is much faster than that among Non-Hispanic whites. Furthermore, whilst there is a precipitous decline among all populations in the US, peer countries as a whole have experienced only a modest decline.

Figure 3: US Life expectancy at birth compared to peer countries: comparison with selected US populations.

This decline in life expectancy has been remarked upon by the Global Times, which commented on the difference in trends between China and the US.

The average life expectancy of Chinese citizens rose to 77.3 years in 2019, and it is expected that the data will keep growing in 2020. Meanwhile, life expectancy in the US fell to 77 years in 2020, dropping by 1.8 years compared to that of 2019.

In 1980, life expectancy in China was 66.84 years and 73.61 years in the US. Recent censuses in China have shown that there is a significant decline in death rates of the whole population and particularly, the elderly population. As a result, China’s average life expectancy has risen significantly. Behind the rise are the progress and development of all aspects of our country, including healthcare, nutrition as well as different types of security.

As for the US, the COVID-19 epidemic must have played its role in the rise of death rates in 2020. According to a study from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in March, the novel coronavirus was the third leading cause of death in the country in 2020, behind heart disease and cancer.

Contrary to assertions in the western media which criticise China’s policy of dynamic zero Covid, it has resulted in the control of infection rates and among the lowest per capita Covid death rates anywhere in the world. This can be contrasted with the approach taken in the west, and particularly in the US, which prioritised re-opening the economy over infection control, resulting in much higher death rates and extreme pressure on health services.

However, the assertion that controlling infection rates is attained at the expense of economic growth is false. In 2020 at the height of the pandemic the US economy contracted by over 4 percent while China’s expanded by 2 percent. Even in 2021, the US economy grew by 5.7 percent after reopening; China’s economy grew by 8.08 percent. The IMF has downgraded China’s economic growth forecast to 3.3 percent for 2022, and downgraded US economic growth forecast to 2.3 percent.

Figure 4 shows a comparison between life expectancy at birth between China and the US.

Figure 4: Life expectancy at birth, China vs US

Between Figures 2 and 3 it can be concluded that there has been a precipitous decline in life expectancy in the US, whereas there has been a very marginal decline among peer countries. However, China has continued to experience a rise in life expectancy uninterrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, and has now overtaken the US for the first time. In fact, China had already overtaken the US in terms of healthy lifespan in 2018 when whilst not living as long as US citizens, Chinese already enjoyed healthier old age. At this point the US was already experiencing declines in healthy lifespan even prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. Interestingly, Cuba and Albania also overtook the US in life expectancy in 2021.

In conclusion, while the global pandemic has exposed singular underlying weakness in the fabric of US society which is exhibited in the continuing decline in life expectancy at birth, there is a stagnation in the same measure among the US’s peer countries. In contrast China’s life expectancy at birth has continued to increase uninterrupted despite the vicissitudes of the pandemic. Moreover, while the pandemic, and its global consequences have severely impacted China’s economy, it still compares favourably with the capitalist west even in spite of its strict Covid-19 policies. Once again, the superiority of socialism over capitalism is demonstrated.