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How Aging Societies Should Respond to Pandemics

Whereas just over 2.5% of the US population was over 70 in 1920, that share is now more than 10%. This shift has major implications for how the coronavirus spreads, how many people will die, and how we should respond to this and future pandemics.

LONDON – The global fight against COVID-19 has triggered a surge of interest in the 1918-20 influenza pandemic that killed more than 50 million people around the world. But while we can learn lessons from the past, we must recognize what is different this time and tailor our response accordingly.

Above all, society is aging. In 2018, for the first time in history, the world had more people aged over 65 than under five. Whereas just over 2.5% of the US population was over 70 in 1920, that share is now more than 10%. This shift has major implications for how the coronavirus spreads, how many people will die, and how we should respond to this and future pandemics.

Consider the number of expected COVID-19 fatalities in the United States. One recent high-profile study concluded that, absent policy changes in the US, the coronavirus would lead to 2.2 million deaths. But if today’s US population was the same size, but with the (younger) age structure of 1920, that number is reduced to 740,000. That difference highlights the potential greater gains today from social-distancing measures to combat COVID-19, further justifying the approach even if it results in heavy economic losses.

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