Even before the pandemic began, more people here were dying at younger ages than in comparably wealthy nations.
The current mortality crisis was long in the making. In terms of mortality, America’s peer countries—many of which had been hammered by World War II and its aftermath—began catching up with it in the mid-1970s before overtaking in the early 1980s. That was a pivotal era, when globalization, automation, and a growing service industry led to huge losses in mining, manufacturing, and other blue-collar sectors.
The U.S. profoundly failed to protect its citizens from these changes. Its social safety net—state assistance for parents, or people facing job, food, or housing insecurity—was meager; its public-health system was languishing after decades of underinvestment; and unlike every other wealthy country, it lacked universal health care.
These factors “privatized risk,” Bor and his colleagues wrote in their paper, “tying health more closely to personal wealth and employment.” As labor unions declined and minimum wages stagnated, more Americans had fewer resources to lean on if their health declined. Poorer Americans already lived, on average, shorter lives than rich ones, and that gulf started to widen.
Other particularly American choices exacerbated the stresses on the health of the country’s citizens, again weighing more heavily on less wealthy people. A growing mass-incarceration industry punished them. A deregulatory agenda that began with Ronald Reagan’s administration left them vulnerable to unhealthy foods, workplace hazards, environmental pollutants, guns, and opioids. “America basically says: If you’re poor, you don’t have access to safe choices,” Bor told me.
Factors like social inequalities and frayed social safety nets are the fundamental weaknesses of American society, which more specific problems like opioids, metabolic disorders, and COVID exploit. During the pandemic, for example, poor and minority groups were more likely to be infected because they lived in crowded housing, distrusted medical leaders, and couldn’t work from home or take time off when sick. And instead of addressing these foundational problems, policy makers instead focused on personal responsibility.
America’s drastic underperformance in health also stems from its history of segregation and discrimination. . … ”elites have long marshaled the racial resentment of poor white Americans to undermine support for public goods that would benefit everyone, such as universal health care. Per Frederick Douglass and other Black leaders, “They divided both to conquer each.”
COVID, for example, disproportionately killed Black, Latino, and Indigenous Americans—a trend that, when highlighted to white people, reduces their concern about the pandemic and their support for safety measures. But in 2021, young white Americans still died at three times the rate of the average resident of other peer nations, while young Black and Indigenous Americans died at rates five- and eightfold higher, respectively.
“There are thousands of racial-disparity studies that compare Black people to white people—but white Americans are a terrible counterfactual,” Bor told me. They’re frogs in the same pot, boiling more slowly but boiling nonetheless. By using them as a baseline, we ignore how “everyone is harmed by the status quo in the U.S.”
But “the inability of our politics to generate policies that manage health threats is grim,” Bor said. None of the weaknesses that COVID exposed have been addressed; some, like the chasm-sized health gaps between rich and poor or white and Black, have been widened. Reactionary laws that hamstring what public-health departments can do in emergencies will make the U.S. vulnerable to the new viruses that will inevitably assault it in future years.