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Covid-19 eliminated decade-long gains in global life expectancy: WHO

May 24, 2024 06:53 PM IST

Covid-19 rapidly emerged as a leading cause of death, ranking as the third highest cause of mortality globally in 2020 and the second in 2021

NEW DELHI: Between 2019 and 2021, global life expectancy dropped by 1.8 years to 71.4 years, and healthy life expectancy by 1.5 years to 61.9 years in 2021 (back to the level of 2012 in both cases), according to the World Health Organisation (WHO)’s World Health Statistics report released on Friday. The report underlined how the Covid-19 pandemic wiped out nearly a decade of progress in improving life expectancy within two years.

The Americas and Southeast Asia were hit hardest with life expectancy dropping by approximately 3 years. (HT PHOTO/Representative)
The Americas and Southeast Asia were hit hardest with life expectancy dropping by approximately 3 years. (HT PHOTO/Representative)

The impact of the pandemic was unequal globally. The Americas and Southeast Asia were hit hardest with life expectancy dropping by approximately 3 years and healthy life expectancy by 2.5 years between 2019 and 2021. The Western Pacific Region was minimally affected during the first two years of the pandemic with losses of less than 0.1 years in life expectancy and 0.2 years in healthy life expectancy.

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“There continues to be major progress in global health, with billions of people who are enjoying better health, better access to services, and better protection from health emergencies,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general. “But we must remember how fragile progress can be. In just two years, the Covid-19 pandemic erased a decade of gains in life expectancy.”

He said that is why the new Pandemic Agreement is so important to not only to strengthen global health security but to protect long-term investments in health and promote equity within and between countries.

Non-communicable diseases remain the top killer

Covid-19 rapidly emerged as a leading cause of death, ranking as the third highest cause of mortality globally in 2020 and the second in 2021. Nearly 13 million lives were lost during this period. The latest estimates reveal that except in the African and Western Pacific regions, Covid-19 was among the top five causes of death, notably becoming the leading cause of death in the Americas for both years.

The WHO report said non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as ischaemic heart disease and stroke, cancers, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and other dementias, and diabetes were the biggest killers before the pandemic. They were responsible for 74% of all deaths in 2019. Even during the pandemic, NCDs continued to account for 78% of non-Covid deaths.

Increasing obesity and malnutrition

The world faces a massive and complex problem of a double burden of malnutrition, where undernutrition coexists with overweight and obesity. In 2022, over one billion people aged five and older were living with obesity. Over half a billion were underweight. Malnutrition in children was also striking, with 148 million children under five affected by stunting (too short for age), 45 million from wasting (too thin for height), and 37 million were overweight.

The report highlighted the significant health challenges faced by persons with disabilities, refugees, and migrants. In 2021, about 1.3 billion people, or 16% of the global population, had a disability. This group is disproportionately affected by health inequities resulting from avoidable, unjust, and unfair conditions.

Access to healthcare for refugees and migrants remains limited, with only half of the 84 countries surveyed between 2018 and 2021 providing government-funded health services to these groups at levels comparable to their citizens. This highlights the urgent need for health systems to adapt and address the persisting inequities and changing demographic needs of global populations, said the report.

Progress towards the Triple Billion targets and SDGs

Despite setbacks caused by the pandemic, the world has made some progress towards achieving the Triple Billion targets (to improve the health of billions) and health-related indicators of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Since 2018, an additional 1.5 billion people achieved better health and well-being. Despite gains, rising obesity, high tobacco use, and persistent air pollution hinder progress.

Universal Health Coverage expanded to 585 million more people, falling short of the goal of one billion. Additionally, only 777 million more people are likely to be adequately protected during health emergencies by 2025, falling short of the one billion target set in WHO’s 13th General Programme of Work. This protection is increasingly important as the effects of climate change and other global crises increasingly threaten health security.

“While we have made progress towards the Triple Billion targets since 2018, a lot still needs to be done. Data is WHO’s superpower. We need to use it better to deliver more impact in countries,” said Samira Asma, assistant director-general for data, analytics, and delivery for impact, WHO. “Without accelerating progress, it is unlikely that any of the health SDGs will be met by 2030.”

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