Most weeknights I watch the man with the smirk and rolling eyes but only for a few minutes. I can’t stand Tucker Carlson for longer than that.
The other night he was trying to convince us that the Covid-19 concerns have been overblown. His aha information was that the median age of a Covid death in this country is eighty. “That is higher than the average life expectancy in the United States.” A few moments later I turned off the TV and resumed reading Celestial Bodies, the selection for next week’s book group, but Carlson’s information stuck in my head.
So I did some checking the next day. A chart on the CDC website breaks down deaths involving Covid-19 by sex and age groups in 2020 and 2021. It does not provide the median age of the more than 600,000 deaths, but eighty, if not the official median age, is close to it.
Carlson was also right that eighty is more than the average life expectancy in this country. That number at birth is about seventy-eight years. (Carlson did not point out that life expectancy has recently declined for several reasons including the number of Covid deaths.*)
Finding out that his figures were right, however, did not stop me from thinking that the comparison between life expectancy at birth and the median Covid death age is bizarre. Perhaps Carlson thinks that if you get to be eighty, you are living on borrowed time and death is no big deal, or perhaps he thinks you must already be dead. However, life expectancy increases each year a person survives. At age 75, for example, the average life expectancy is not 78, but about 84. At age 80, it’s about 88. He wanted us to conclude from his statistics that the concern over Covid has been overblown, but is it no big deal that hundreds of thousands who died of Covid were deprived of seven or eight more years of life? If you are older than 78 and dying of Covid, Carlson would suggest that you shouldn’t be upset because you have already exceeded the average life expectancy. Perhaps Carlson thinks we also overreact to cancer and heart attacks because they disproportionately affect older people.
Carlson’s data, of course, also mean that half of the over 600,000 Covid deaths occurred to people younger than eighty. It is also the case that more than 120,000 deaths were of people under sixty-five. Starting at age forty, more than ten percent of deaths from all causes during the pandemic involved Covid, and overall, Covid was involved in about one in every eight deaths in 2020 and 2021. Remember how some people tried to tell us that this coronavirus was no worse than the flu? Influenza killed fewer than 10,000 people in 2020 and 2021; Covid-19 killed sixty times that number.
But even if they aren’t much concerned with the pandemic, the conservative news outlets do seem exercised about the recent rise in murders, and it is true that the sharp increase of gun homicides–about 25%–that occurred under President Trump has continued into this year. In 66 major cities, homicides were 33% higher in 2020 than in 2019 and have increased further by 29% in major cities in the first three months of 2021 over 2020.
The conservative news reports those homicides, but seldom, if ever, do they explore possible causes for the increase. These might include the rise in gun sales during the pandemic–a 64% increase in 2020 over the previous year. And alcohol sales, surveys indicate, were more than 50% higher during the pandemic. More guns; more alcohol. Is anyone surprised that there was a surge in gun violence? But guns, alcohol, and the pandemic–which put strains on the police, courts, probation offices, and social services agencies–are seldom considered on the conservative outlets; instead, they point to protests against the police and calls to defund the police as the only possible causes for the increase in homicides. If these were the only causes, there should be a concomitant rise in all street crimes, but this is not the case. While murders have increased, the rate of other crimes has not. Moreover, they fail to present any historical perspective. As it turns out the present rate is much less than recent highs. For example, the homicide rate in a group of cities was 19.4 per 100,000 residents in 1995; it was 11.4 in 2020 in those same locations.
The conservative fixation on city gun violence also leaves out a salient fact: more people die from gunshot suicides than from firearm homicides. The conservative commentators don’t mention suicides perhaps because they have nothing to do with police protests and reforms and are not a big-city problem. Gun suicides, in fact, are disproportionately rural—two-and-a-half times higher in rural than urban areas–and overwhelmingly white—about 85%. The states with the five highest suicide rates in 2020 were New Mexico, Montana, Wyoming, Alaska, and Idaho. They were lowest in New York and New Jersey. While the conservative media likes to emphasize the murder rates in a handful of cities with Democratic mayors, it is interesting to consider which states have the highest homicide rates. So far this year, the states with the five highest rates are Louisiana, Missouri, Nevada, Maryland, and Arkansas.
Conservatives may avoid discussion of suicides because these people cannot be subliminally transformed into an image of dangerous minorities and because it might lead to a serious consideration of guns in the hands of those whom we don’t think of as criminals. While the success of attempted suicides by all methods is low—about 4%–attempted suicides by gun result in death over 90% of the time. And a study concluded that the chances of a suicide in a household with a gun is about three times higher than in a home without a firearm. Shouldn’t we be talking about this?
The Tucker Carlsons of the world (I write that fervently hoping it is in error and that there is only one of him) want to downplay the importance of Covid-19 and disregard the suicides. But they continue to harp on the homicide rate without mentioning a stable overall crime rate. Yes, we should be concerned about the increase in murders, which has now risen to fifty murders a day in the country. Meanwhile, there are about sixty daily gunshot suicides, and about 250 people each day are still dying from Covid. But, apparently, since half of the pandemic victims have lived longer than the average life expectancy at birth, it is no big deal.
*Part of the reason that the median age of Covid deaths is higher than life expectancy at birth is because America does not have an exceptionally long life expectancy. The United States places forty-sixth is the world. It is always surprising to me when I learn that that life expectancy in Cuba, where medicine is socialized and poverty widespread, is longer than it is here.