New data released by the Chicago Department of Public Health shows a significant drop in life expectancy for Black and Brown Chicagoans, exposing the impact of COVID-19 and inequities in health care.
For the first time in decades, life expectancy for Black Chicagoans fell below 70 years old. In 2020, the gap in life expectancy between Black and White residents was 10 years, an increase from 8.8 years in 2017. Overall, life expectancy in Chicago dropped almost two years from 2019 to 2020.
Brenda Battle, senior vice president of community health transformation and chief diversity, inclusion & equity officer at University of Chicago Medicine, said the numbers shed light on the need to address health disparities.
“When you compound on top of already existing disparities and heart disease or any chronic diseases, hypertension, diabetes, high rates of violence and the stress that results from that,” Battle said. “When you pile COVID on top of that, then you’re talking about further damaging the health and life of these individuals that are already experiencing marginalization and high rates of disparity.”
West Side United is an organization working to reduce the life expectancy gap between Chicago’s West Side and downtown, which it found to be a 14-year difference. West Side United and its partners say the main causes of death leading to the life expectancy gap are cardio metabolic disease, infant mortality, homicide, opioid overdose and cancer. Executive Director Ayesha Jaco says there are social and systemic issues that also contribute to the gap.
“We also see other social drivers like economic vitality, like neighborhood and the physical environment and education also as pillars that we need to think through and have strategies and our metrics framework does get at measurement for some of the things related to that,” said Jaco.
The Chicago Department of Public Health says COVID-19 deaths were a significant driver of the life expectancy decline in Chicago. The main drivers of the racial divide were chronic diseases like heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
“These chronic diseases are what we call in health care, ambulatory care sensitive conditions. So, these are conditions that if treated effectively and if preventative treatment is applied through greater access to health care and access to services that you can actually address these issues,” said Battle. “So when an individual already has a pre-existing chronic disease and you add on top of it, a deadly infectious disease like COVID, then it further exacerbates an individual’s immune system and his or her capability to actually fight off that infection because they’re already living in a compromised state because of hypertension or diabetes or heart disease or cancer, when they were already living in that compromised state, they don’t often have the ability for the body to be able to manage the infection of COVID.”