WHO Report: COVID Eliminated a decade of progress in life expectancy
The pandemic has reversed gains in life expectancy according to the WHO.

The COVID pandemic has wiped off a decade of steady gain in life expectancy at birth and healthy life expectancy at birth (HALE), according to the World Health Statistics 2024 report by the World Health Organization (WHO).

In the light of the findings the world health body has urged countries to redouble their efforts towards health-related Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030.

“There continues to be major progress in global health, with billions of people who are enjoying better health, better access to services, and better protection from health emergencies,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. “But we must remember how fragile progress can be. In just two years, the COVID-19 pandemic erased a decade of gains in life expectancy.”

Between 2019 and 2021 when the pandemic was raging, global life expectancy dropped by 1.8 years to 71.4 years (back to the level of 2012). Similarly, global healthy life expectancy dropped by 1.5 years to 61.9 years in 2021 (back to the level of 2012).

“This is the world’s report card on health. And the bottom line is that we are failing,” said Dr Samira Asma, Assistant Director-General, WHO Data, Analytics and Delivery for Impact Division during a press briefing. “Despite encouraging progress in some countries, and for some conditions, overall, life expectancy has fallen and shockingly. The world is not on track to achieve even single one of the 32 health-related sustainable development goals,” she said, summing up the key takeaways from the report.

Dr Samira Asma, Assistant Director-General, WHO Data, Analytics and Delivery for Impact Division

And the effects have been unequal across the world, according to the report.

Americas and South-East Asia hit the hardest

The WHO regions for the Americas and South-East Asia were hit hardest, with life expectancy dropping by approximately 3 years and healthy life expectancy by 2.5 years between 2019 and 2021.

In contrast, the Western Pacific Region was minimally affected during the first two years of the pandemic, with losses of less than 0.1 years in life expectancy and 0.2 years in healthy life expectancy.

COVID also rapidly emerged as a leading cause of death, ranking as the third highest cause of mortality globally in 2020 and the second in 2021. Nearly 13 million lives were lost to COVID during this period according to confirmed death data – which experts said only partially represented the true levels of mortality from the pandemic.

Except in the African and Western Pacific regions, COVID was among the top five causes of deaths, notably becoming the leading cause of death in the Americas for both years.

Non-communicable diseases back as the top killers

The WHO report also highlights that noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) such as ischaemic heart disease and stroke, cancers, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, and diabetes, were the biggest killers before the pandemic, responsible for 74% of all deaths in 2019. Even during the pandemic, NCDs continued to account for 78% of non-COVID deaths.

The world also now faces a massive and complex problem of a double burden of malnutrition, where undernutrition coexists with overweight and obesity. In 2022, over one billion people aged five years and older were living with obesity, while more than half a billion were underweight.

Malnutrition in children was also striking, with 148 million children under five years old affected by stunting (too short for age), 45 million suffering from wasting (too thin for height), and 37 million overweight.

Progress in reducing maternal deaths has slowed or stagnated

Progress in averting maternal deaths has also slowed down or stagnated in many parts of the world.

“The number of women dying from a maternal cause has remained unacceptably high. Every two minutes a women dies from maternal causes equating 800 deaths every single day. Achieving SDG target of a 70 deaths per 100,000 live births by 2030 will avert over a million death among women at the global level,” said Dr Haidong Wang, Unit Head, Monitoring, Forecasting and Inequalities, WHO Data, Analytics and Delivery.

The report further highlights the significant health challenges faced by persons with disabilities, refugees and migrants. In 2021, about 1.3 billion people, or 16% of the global population, had disability. This group is disproportionately affected by health inequities resulting from avoidable, unjust and unfair conditions.

Access to healthcare for refugees and migrants remains limited, with only half of the 84 countries surveyed between 2018 and 2021 providing government-funded health services to these groups at levels comparable to their citizens, according to the report.

Dr Haidong Wang, Unit Head, Monitoring, Forecasting and Inequalities, WHO Data, Analytics and Delivery reading out the key highlights from the report.

Health-related SDGs unlikely to be met by 2030

Despite setbacks caused by the pandemic, the world has made some progress towards achieving the WHO’s Triple Billion targets, which aimed to improve the health of 3 billion people between 2019 and 2023, as well as the health-related indicators of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Since 2018, an additional 1.5 billion people achieved better health and well-being, WHO said in its report. Despite gains, rising obesity, high tobacco use, and persistent air pollution hinder progress.

Universal Health Coverage expanded to 585 million more people, falling short of the goal for one billion more people accessing UHC. Additionally, only 777 million more people are likely to be adequately protected during health emergencies by 2025, falling short of the one billion target set by the WHO for emergencies. This protection is increasingly important as the effects of climate change and other global crises increasingly threaten health security. Only 138 million people were living in healthier environments and lifestyles, far short of the 1 billion envisioned for that part of the Triple Billion Goal.

The progress is far from being enough. “While we have made progress towards the Triple Billion targets since 2018, a lot still needs be done. Data is WHO’s superpower. We need to use it better to deliver more impact in countries,” said Dr Asma.

Image Credits: Unsplash.

Combat the infodemic in health information and support health policy reporting from the global South. Our growing network of journalists in Africa, Asia, Geneva and New York connect the dots between regional realities and the big global debates, with evidence-based, open access news and analysis. To make a personal or organisational contribution click here on PayPal.