The COVID years knocked 2 ½ years off life expectancy in CEE

The COVID years knocked 2 ½ years off life expectancy in CEE

03. 04. 2023 – Lomond

There is very limited appetite to talk (or even think) about COVID-19 these days. Other concerns – the war in Ukraine, the energy crisis, sky-high inflation – have taken over and, understandably, most people prefer to move on rather than re-live the pandemic years.

However, COVID left an indelible impression and there will be a host of long-term impacts – physically (for people suffering from long COVID or whose mental health has not fully recovered), emotionally (for people who lost loved ones to COVID or who weren’t able to be with family and friends at critical moments in their lives) and economically (the Centre for Economic Policy Research estimates that COVID will impart “a permanent levels shock to post-pandemic global economic output of 3% of GDP”). 

There will also be lessons to learn for how we deal with future public health crises. During the pandemic, the policy response – the different approaches governments took to things like lockdowns, mask-wearing and vaccination roll-outs – was a central preoccupation for most of us. But with the benefit of a little bit of hindsight, it’s instructive to take a step back and look at what the COVID years did to life expectancy across Europe – which, when you break it down by country, looks like this:

So the 10 worst-affected member states are from the group of 11 Central & Eastern European countries that joined the EU from 2004 onwards.

Is that simply because COVID was, for whatever reasons, more deadly in CEE? Partly yes – this map shows the number of confirmed deaths from COVID per million people, and the top 10 countries in Europe (those coloured the brightest red) are all in CEE:

The impact on life expectancy is, of course, about more than direct COVID deaths, though. It’s also about deaths caused indirectly by the pandemic – by people who did not receive the care they needed because of the strains on the healthcare system, for example. ‘Excess mortality’ data (i.e.  deaths from all causes compared to projections based on previous years) is probably the best way to assess that, and those numbers paint a similar picture to the map above: the Western European member states saw excess mortality increase by 0-13% between January 2020 and January 2022; the majority of the CEE member states were in the 13-23% range over the same period.

The factors behind these numbers are hugely complicated and contested – it’s way beyond the scope of a short piece like this even to try to unpick it. But again, taking a step back for a moment, it’s worth considering one ‘big picture’ factor in all this: the relative wealth of these countries, all of which were facing the same strains of the same disease, at the same time:

This chart isn’t identical to the one above showing what the COVID years did to life expectancy across Europe – but it’s strikingly similar.

So perhaps, without wanting to underplay the complexities of all this or the importance of political decision-making, the truth is that wealthier nations were simply better able to cope with the impact of the pandemic than poorer countries?