The Years We’ve Lost to Covid

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“It matters how old you are when you die,” said Dr. Bassett. People value the presence of elders in their lives, she said, “But when someone dies too young,” she said, “a family may lose a breadwinner. They may leave children without a parent.”

“We get more call to think about years of life lost in low-income and middle-income settings,” Dr. Murray said. In the early 1990s the World Bank used it as the basis of its Global Burdens of Disease study, which is now produced annually.

In the United States, it continues to be used in the insurance industry, where it originated, to calculate premiums and for other purposes. It isn’t often used to talk about public health, although there’s a movement to use it in drug pricing.

There’s good reason to use it, Dr. Murray and others said. “We’ve had clear difficulties figuring out what works best, when, and in what contexts,” said Adeline Lo, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin who was an author on the international study. “This at least puts another fact on the table that may be helpful.”

Choosing to prioritize demographics that are losing the greatest number of overall years would be one way to lessen the pandemic’s toll. Even so, no number can truly capture human loss.

“We don’t live our lives statistically,” said Dan Bouk, a historian of demography from Colgate University. When they think of this pandemic, most people will remember those they took care of, the illnesses they suffered or the loved ones they lost, he said. “Neither aggregate death totals nor years of life lost will accurately capture that experience.”

Before her death last summer, Anna Carter lived 13 years, eight months and eight days. In that time, she hiked Mount Fuji, went to church, played with her baby brother, David, and coveted fake nails. She aspired to become an entertainer or maybe go into medicine and try to make the world better for others with scleroderma, the autoimmune disease she lived with.

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