Coronavirus may increase Australia's widening socio-economic gap in premature death rates

People are seen waiting in line outside a Woolworths supermarket in Coburg, Melbourne, 19 March, 2020. Source: AAP

University of Melbourne researchers say there have been substantial and widening socio-economic and geographical inequalities in life expectancy in Australia.

The coronavirus pandemic may exacerbate a widening socio-economic gap in premature death rates that is contributing to a stagnation in Australians' life expectancy, researchers say.

The University of Melbourne researchers say substantial and widening socio-economic and geographical inequalities in the risk of death have accompanied a slowdown in Australia's life expectancy gains.

Their study found premature deaths between the ages of 35 and 74 occurred in the lowest socio-economic areas at double the rate of those in the highest.

People living in outer regional, remote and very remote areas have premature death rates about 40 per cent higher than in major cities, the research published in the journal Australian Population Studies showed.

Professor Alan Lopez said reducing the widening gap in mortality would require a significant shift in policy, with a stronger emphasis on adapting health campaigns and interventions to the socio-economic context and stressors common among regional, rural and lower socio-economic groups.

Professor Lopez, director of the university's Global Burden of Disease Group, was concerned the emotional and economic stressors from the coronavirus pandemic would be experienced disproportionately by lower socio-economic groups, further widening the gap in mortality rates.

"The advent of COVID-19 might well exacerbate this already unfavourable trend due to increased stress and unemployment hitting the least well off hardest, which could well have a flow-on effect in terms of poorer health behaviours and access to health care," he said in a statement on Monday.

"This ought to be a key consideration in government policy responses to COVID-19."

Elderly people walk in the street, in Brisbane, Saturday, May 5, 2018. (AAP Image/Glenn Hunt) NO ARCHIVING
File photo

The researchers noted adverse health behaviours such as smoking, alcohol consumption and poor diet were more prevalent among lower socio-economic groups, which may explain much of the widening socio-economic gap in mortality rates.

They also noted inequalities in access to health care, as well as the availability of essential trauma and acute care services, likely played an important role in the higher death rates in rural and regional areas.

"If we continue to see widening inequalities and specifically stagnation of mortality decline among the lowest socio-economic groups, future life expectancy growth in Australia will be hampered," Dr Tim Adair said.

Increases in Australia's life expectancy have slowed since 2003.

The researchers analysed Australian death registration data from 2006 to 2016 and noted life expectancy for both sexes has stagnated since 2013.

The latest data puts life expectancy at 80.5 years for men and 84.6 years for women.

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits. Testing for coronavirus is now widely available across Australia. If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

The federal government's coronavirus tracing app COVIDSafe is available for download from your phone's app store.

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