How will we fight the virus of despair?

After the Covid-19 crisis, Americans will have to grapple with overdoses and suicides

Covid-19 has brought about dramatic changes in how we live our lives, but the sharp and sudden transformation in daily life should not stop us considering the serious social changes which were underway prior to it, and which we will have to contend with in the coming years when normality is restored.

Deaths from Despair and the Future of Capitalism, published in March, is yet another in the growing list of books examining increasing social and economic divisions in the United States.

The co-authors Anne Case and Angus Deaton, a married couple who are both economics professors in Princeton University, focus their work on America’s growing mortality crisis: what is happening, why it is happening and how the problem could potentially be fixed.

Case and Deaton coined the phrase “deaths from despair” in 2015 to describe the growing number of fatalities from alcoholism, drug overdoses (including those caused by opioid addiction) or suicide being recorded in the US. Even in a country as populous as America, the death toll is remarkable. In 2017, there were 157,000 of these deaths nationwide.

Case and Deaton focus in particular on American whites, a group which has historically been privileged compared to other groups, but who are far from immune to the growing despair afflicting less affluent parts of the country.

So great has been the carnage that overall death rates among middle-aged people have been increasing, a trend which runs contrary to what occurred in the 20th century, an era in which medical advances helped to save huge numbers of younger people from cancer, heart disease and other ailments. 

Shockingly, as a result of this increase in deaths from alcohol and drug addiction and suicide, life expectancy at birth fell year-on-year for the America population as a whole between 2014 and 2017. A decline like this has not taken place for 100 years.  



Secularisation and atomisation did not come about by accident, and the passing of the old order was heralded by many as representing liberation. It still is heralded, in spite of the mounting evidence of the price which has been paid by the most vulnerable in society.

If our leaders and influencers – be they in the political, educational or media spheres – do not stop to consider what is being done in the name of progress, then the present misery of America could be our future too.


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