The COVID pandemic has caused a “protracted shock” to life expectancy levels leading to global mortality changes not seen in the last 70 years, according to research.
Previous epidemics have seen fairly rapid “bounce backs” to life expectancy levels, said experts.
But the scale and magnitude of COVID-19 on mortality confounds claims that it has had no more impact than a flu-like illness, they added.
The researchers are also warning that countries with “ineffective” responses will see a health crisis with “medium-term stalls” in life expectancy.
Nations with high proportions of vaccinated people are expected to see smaller drops in life expectancy compared to other countries, according to the findings.
The study from Oxford’s Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science and Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research also found much of western Europe experienced “bounce backs” in life expectancy in 2021.
However, experts said the scale and magnitude of COVID on mortality “confounds claims” it has had no more impact than a flu-type illness.
The researchers said “life expectancy losses” during flu epidemics in the second half of the last century were “much smaller and less widespread” than those recorded in the COVID pandemic.
England and Wales saw partial bounce backs from 2020 levels in 2021, while life expectancy in Scotland and Northern Ireland remained at the same “depressed level” as 2020.
Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium and France saw complete bounce backs, returning to pre-pandemic 2019 life expectancy levels.
Eastern Europe and the US witnessed “worsening or compounded losses” in life expectancy over the same period.
Researchers said the scale of life expectancy losses in eastern Europe were “akin” to those last seen at the break-up of the Soviet Union.
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Study co-author, Dr Ridhi Kashyap, said a “notable shift between 2020 and 2021 was that the age patterns of excess mortality shifted in 2021 towards younger age groups, as vaccines began to protect the old”.
Another co-author, Dr Jonas Scholey, said finer “details of the age prioritisation of vaccine roll-out and the types of vaccines used may account for some of these differences”.
Vaccine uptake and the capacity of the health care system could also have an impact, the study reported.