A new study out Thursday is one of the first to try measuring deaths during the pandemic that were caused not by the virus itself but by the economic devastation it sparked. The study estimates that the spike in unemployment seen last spring helped cause an additional 30,000 deaths among working-age adults in the U.S. over the past year.
Researchers at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) looked at various sources of data to come up with their numbers, including government-collected unemployment and mortality data reported in 2020. Last year saw the highest reported monthly unemployment rate—14.7% in April 2020—seen since the Great Depression. Then they mapped that data to past estimates of how much a sudden rise in unemployment can contribute to excess deaths that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.
By their calculations, the springtime decline in jobs linked to the pandemic will lead to an excess death toll of 30,231 Americans between the ages of 25 and 64 from April 2020 to March 2021.
The team’s findings, published in the American Journal of Public Health, do carry some uncertainty. Using different assumptions about the risk of increased deaths from unemployment, or relying on different measures of unemployment (some measures include people able to work but not currently seeking a job as unemployed, for instance, while others don’t) changed their math. So in different scenarios, unemployment-related deaths connected to the pandemic ranged as low as 8,315 to high as 201,968.
Because the study’s findings are only based on modeling the expected death toll, it can’t show us exactly what may have caused these deaths. But it is known that job loss contributes to poorer physical and mental health, often because people also end up losing their health insurance. The role of one presumptive factor—suicide—is less clear. Some early evidence has suggested that suicides aren’t likely to have gone up significantly in the U.S. last year. Yet other data has shown that other health problems possibly related to unemployment spikes, like drug overdoses, did become more prevalent.
What is clear is that the impact of these excess deaths, much like those directly attributed to the viral disease, wasn’t shared equally across different racial and socioeconomic groups of Americans. According to the study, somewhere around 72% of these excess deaths involved Americans without a college degree, despite this group only representing 37% of working age Americans overall. Black Americans, men, and people over the age of 45 were also disproportionately more likely to die in their analysis.
It’s difficult to separate out the indirect effects of a natural disaster, especially one that’s gone on as long as the covid-19 pandemic has. Some people have argued that aggressive measures to contain the pandemic, which have at times included the shutting down of businesses like bars and restaurants, have been counterproductive, in part because of the fallout of potential lost jobs. Yet some countries, including New Zealand, were able to entirely stop the pandemic’s spread within their borders through these measures, allowing them to bounce back strong from their recessions.
In any case, the U.S. hasn’t done a good job at either stopping the pandemic, with nearly half a million deaths directly attributed to covid-19, or at keeping financially struggling Americans on solid footing. It’s likely that some of these deaths could have been prevented with simply better policy—a lesson that the authors hope we can learn in the second year of covid-19.
“A number of different programs and policies could help prevent unemployment-related deaths and their disproportionate impacts on vulnerable communities,” lead author Ellicott Matthay, a postdoctoral researcher with the Center for Health and Community at UCSF, told Gizmodo in an email. “Some of the most prominent include: (1) more generous and extended unemployment benefits with broader eligibility criteria, (2) programs to promote quick re-employment after job loss, and (3) expanded access to health insurance and mental health/substance use services, particularly for those who have been hardest hit.”
This article has been updated with comments from the study’s lead author.