The real culprit here is a worldview described by the prophet Isaiah centuries ago, one which urges us to spend money on that which is not bread and to work for what cannot satisfy. Today, we are urged to spend our resources and seek fulfilment in stuff, sex, state, and self. The countless Americans turning to anesthetics to numb their disappointment is proof that these things cannot satisfy.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 19 percent more Americans died in 2020 than in 2019. Adjusted for population age, that’s the largest one-year increase in mortality since the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918. The CDC attributes approximately 375,000 American deaths in 2020 to COVID-19, but making that stat the headline of this story would be burying the lede.
Unlike the Spanish flu, the COVID pandemic left young adults largely unscathed. Only about 3.5% of the recent pandemic’s victims were in the 25-34 age bracket. Yet deaths in this age group are still on the rise. In fact, working-age adults are the only group whose age-adjusted mortality over the last few decades hasn’t improved.
Writing at Bloomberg, Justin Fox reports that while the rest of the population has experienced increased health and life expectancies, younger adults — who are historically among the healthiest citizens — are dying at about the same rate they did in 1953, a time when medicine and health care weren’t nearly as advanced as today.
Back in March, the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine issued a lengthy report which attempted to explain this data. The culprits identified for the “high and rising mortality among working-age adults” were “external causes” like drugs, alcohol, and suicide. Likewise the CDC has identified a surge in drug overdoses as the main problem, especially the popularity of fentanyl and similar highly potent synthetic opioids. In 2015, economists Ann Case and Angus Denton gave this collective of killers a name: “deaths of despair.”
Deaths of despair have been on the rise for years and are disproportionately concentrated among white, rural Americans without college degrees. More immediately, these have served as “pre-existing conditions” of COVID or, more accurately, “comorbidities.” Though numbers are still trickling in, rates of “deaths of despair” worsened sharply in 2020, when lockdowns and social distancing were at their peak, according to the CDC.