It should be common knowledge by now that younger people are significantly less likely to die of Covid-19 than the elderly. However, a new working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research notes some significant increases in excess deaths among working-age individuals. Excess deaths are the number of deaths exceeding the expected number in a given year. If there are excess deaths that means something unusual has happened, such as a pandemic or a drastic change to social life: such as lockdowns. The study notes,
“From March onward, excess deaths are approximately 250,000 of which about 17,000 appear to be a COVID undercount and 30,000 non-COVID. Deaths of despair (drug overdose, suicide, alcohol) in 2017 and 2018 are good predictors of the demographic groups with NCEDs in 2020. The NCEDs are disproportionately experienced by men aged 15-55, including men aged 15-25. Local data on opioid overdoses further support the hypothesis that the pandemic and recession were associated with a 10 to 60 percent increase in deaths of despair above already high pre-pandemic levels.”
Of course, the elephant in the room is that over 250,000 excess deaths have been attributed to Covid-19 with 30,000 attributed to non-Covid causes. The debate about whether recorded Covid deaths should be lower or higher, and whether lockdowns have done anything to help with that number will be saved for another day. The purpose of this article is to focus on the fact that younger people have been dying at higher rates than usual and it is likely that lockdowns are one of the main drivers of that trend.
The author of the study, Casey Mulligan, writes the following about how some people felt towards the idea that lockdowns would lead to more deaths of despair such as suicides and drug overdoses:
“Some have worried that “the cure is worse than the disease.” Economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton mocked this as a “pet theory about the fatal dangers of quarantine.” They concluded in the summer of 2020 that “a wave of deaths of despair is highly unlikely.”
However, by examining CDC data Mulligan points out that there have been around 30,000 excess deaths that are completely unrelated to Covid-19. Elderly individuals have seen a decrease in non-Covid-related excess deaths and bear the large share of Covid deaths. This would make sense because Covid-19 is more deadly to elderly people, so if excess deaths are up then Covid-19 would be the explanatory variable. This also creates a question about comorbidities and relabeling the cause of death, but again a conversation for another day.
The interesting point is that excess deaths for working-age people has also been increasing but Covid-19 is not the only reason. If Covid isn’t killing younger people then the only other major explanation would be deaths of despair. Deaths caused by suicides and drug abuse due to the life-crushing effects of lockdowns. When you force the entire country into social isolation and upend people’s lives, people tend to get emotionally distraught. That’s why younger people are dying at higher rates than usual. To be fair the author writes,
“Presumably social isolation is part of the mechanism that turns a pandemic into a wave of deaths of despair. However, the results in this paper do not say how much, if any, comes from government stay-at-home orders versus various actions individual households and private businesses have taken to encourage social distancing.”