Pandemic Unemployment Has Taken Its Own Deadly Toll

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Unemployment figures have improved since the peak last April. In January, the employment rate stood at 6.3%, according to the BLS. But that is still well above the pre-pandemic level of 3.5%.

A body of research has shown that unemployment increases the risk of death, according to Duchowny. Calculating the number of deaths linked to pandemic job losses is difficult, however.

To begin to get a handle on it, the UCSF researchers used several sources: a published analysis of previous studies on the risk of death associated with unemployment; BLS unemployment figures, and death data from the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics.

Their “best estimate,” Duchowny said, is that 30,231 deaths can so far be attributed to pandemic unemployment.

But considering different scenarios, the researchers found that the numbers could range from a low of 8,300 to almost 202,000.

It’s hard to gauge, for instance, whether the health toll of unemployment during this pandemic — and the many stresses it has brought — would be different compared with other time periods, Duchowny said.

The researchers also found that along with Black Americans, less-educated Americans have likely been disproportionately affected: People with a high school education or less accounted for 72% of the estimated deaths.

Both groups have suffered a high rate of job loss.

These are people, Duchowny said, who have borne a “double burden” of being hard-hit by both COVID-19 and the economic fallout of the pandemic.

Some relief is in sight. Dorn said the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill moving through Congress has some vital provisions for Americans who lack health insurance.

They include federal assistance to help people buy insurance, he said, plus “major incentives” for states to expand their Medicaid programs to more residents.

“Job No. 1 is to minimize the impact [of unemployment] now,” Dorn said. But, he added, “these are short-term emergency measures.”

Ultimately, Dorn said, the lessons of the pandemic should lead to long-term changes in the U.S. health care system.

“Infectious disease experts have long said the U.S. would be vulnerable during a pandemic,” Dorn noted.

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