Jacob Bor has been thinking about a parallel universe. He envisions a world in which America has health on par with that of other wealthy nations, and is not an embarrassing outlier that, despite spending more on health care than any other country, has shorter life spans, higher rates of chronic disease and maternal mortality, and fewer doctors per capita than its peers. Bor, an epidemiologist at Boston University School of Public Health, imagines the people who are still alive in that other world but who died in ours. He calls such people “missing Americans.” And he calculates that in 2021 alone, there were 1.1 million of them.
Bor and his colleagues arrived at that number by using data from an international mortality database and the CDC. For every year from 1933 to 2021, they compared America’s mortality rates with the average of Canada, Japan, and 16 Western European nations (adjusting for age and population). They showed that from the 1980s onward, the U.S. started falling behind its peers. By 2019, the number of missing Americans had grown to 626,000. After COVID arrived, that statistic ballooned even further—to 992,000 in 2020, and to 1.1 million in 2021. Were the U.S. “just average compared to other wealthy countries, not even the best performer, fully a third of all deaths last year would have been prevented,” Bor told me. That includes half of all deaths among working-age adults. “Think of two people you might know under 65 who died last year: One of them might still be alive,” he said. “It raises the hairs on the back of my neck.”
These counterfactuals puncture two common myths about America’s pandemic experience: that the U.S. was just one unremarkable victim of a crisis that spared no nation and that COVID disrupted a status quo that was strong and worth restoring wholesale. In fact, as one expert predicted in March 2020, the U.S. had the worst outbreak in the industrialized world—not just because of what the Trump and Biden administrations did, but also because of the country’s rotten rootstock. COVID simply did more of what life in America has excelled at for decades: killing Americans in unusually large numbers, and at unusually young ages. “I don’t think people in the United States actually have any awareness of just how poorly we do as a country at letting people live to old age,” Elizabeth Wrigley-Field, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota, told me. [Continue reading…]