We are constantly reminded on a minute-by-minute basis of the rising cases in Covid-19 and the alarming increase in deaths associated with the disease. It’s both terrible and awful. These are our grandparents, moms, dads, brothers, sisters and neighbors. However, there’s another alarming health disaster that’s not openly discussed.
The media focus on the numbers, but neglect to look at the human toll. Small and midsize businesses have been ordered to shut down, curtail their operations or have had to permanently close their doors. Iconic American corporations, like J.C. Penney, had to file for bankruptcy protection.
The accompanying job-loss crisis has caused a catastrophe. Many people are fearful of being evicted for not having sufficient emergency funds on hand to make their rent or mortgage payments. Young adults, according to Zillow, have moved back home with their parents, as they’re unable to afford their rent without a job. People are forced into the gig economy or accept jobs far below the roles they’ve previously held, just to make ends meet.
The loss of work or fear of losing your job wreaks havoc on a person’s psyche. According to CBS News, “Rampant unemployment, isolation and an uncertain future could lead to 75,000 deaths from drug or alcohol abuse and suicide, new research suggests.” This is known as “deaths of despair” and is “tied to multiple factors, like unemployment, fear and dread and isolation.” The numbers of deaths could grow even higher. CBS points to a study that claims “a very slow recovery combined with the greatest impact of unemployment could result in more than 150,000 deaths of despair.”
The data shows that the most at-risk people are working class without a college education. University graduates with white-collar jobs—working from home—are riding out the disease better than the rest of society. The so-called elites live longer and lead more prosperous lives compared to less-educated Americans, who comprise two thirds of the population. This group is dying younger. They are struggling mentally, physically, economically and socially.
The book Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, coauthored by economist and Princeton professor Anne Case and Nobel Prize winner Angus Deaton, highlights the growing divide between those with a four-year college degree and those without one. The rise in deaths described in the book is concentrated almost entirely among those without a bachelor’s degree. The lack of this degree, according to the authors, divides people in terms of “employment, remuneration, morbidity, marriage and social esteem.”
The economists and authors point out, “Life expectancy in the United States has recently fallen for three years in a row—a reversal not seen since 1918 or in any other wealthy nation in modern times. In the past two decades, deaths of despair from suicide, drug overdose and alcoholism have risen dramatically, and now claim more than 150,000 American lives each year.”
Casey Mulligan, an economist at the University of Chicago, asserts the Covid-influenced recession had a peculiar effect, different from past bad economies. The massive trillion-dollar stimulus programs, including enhanced unemployment benefits, put money in people’s pockets. Due to lockdowns, there weren’t many ways to spend the money. You couldn’t—or would be reluctant to—hop on a plane and leave for vacation. Movie theaters, restaurants, bars and clubs were closed or had strict restrictions for their customers. There wasn’t a real opportunity to attend live events, such as concerts or football games.
Stuck at home, unemployed, with not much to do, people turned to opioids, which is something people can do by themselves. Mulligan, who was also a White House economist, in a recent working paper, said, “Increased isolation during the pandemic may have contributed to rising ‘deaths of despair.’” This includes “suicides, alcohol-related deaths and especially drug overdoses.”
“It’s not a happy time when you’re not with other people. Most people are social,” Mulligan said in an interview. The pandemic, by its nature, forced people to cease interacting with one another. We have been instructed to avoid large gatherings. Holidays, like Thanksgiving and Christmas, didn’t include extended family members and were a quiet, lonely time for many. A lot of sad people were alone and abusing drugs and alcohol. When a person accidentally overdoses by themself, there’s a bigger risk of dying, as there’s no one around to help or call for medical assistance.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that the pandemic may have contributed to a rise in deadly drug overdoses. Drug overdoses, suicides and alcohol-related deaths killed roughly 165,000 Americans in 2019.
Case warns that while vaccines will eventually provide relief from the deadly coronavirus, “finding a way to immunize people against these deaths may be even harder.” She added, “Once [Covid-19] is in the rear-view mirror, we still have a lot of work to do to try to bring down the numbers of people who are dying annually in the U.S. from suicide, drug overdose and from alcohol.”
It’s time that our elected leaders, media, medical and business communities try to communicate with one another and put together a comprehensive plan to address this issue before more Americans suffer and die.