The unexpected rise in highway deaths, even with far fewer drivers on the road, is a reminder of the many ways the virus is killing us even if it doesn’t enter your body.
Last Tuesday afternoon, 20 ambulances were racing from all directions toward a highway tunnel in the province of Tolima, in central Colombia. A chain collision had left a mangled scene of death and wreckage after a truck had lost control, causing 15 vehicles including several freight trucks to crash. The pile-up left 8 dead and 33 people wounded, Colombian daily El Tiempo reports.
It was a brutal start to 2022 for the South American nation, but follows a pattern from last year: While fatalities from traffic accidents fell every year between 2018 and 2020, a major road safety organization reports that already by the end of October, the year 2021 was set to become Colombia’s bloodiest in two decades, with 5,900 road deaths reported. According to El Espectador, ignoring traffic signs was the main reason, followed by speeding and driving under the influence.
Fewer cars but more accidents
However, Colombia isn’t the only country that has seen a recent surge in traffic accidents. In the U.S., 38,680 road fatalities were recorded in 2020, the highest since 2007 — despite the pandemic lockdowns and travel restrictions that dramatically reduced driving. That trend continued into 2021, with more than 20,000 deaths in the first six months — an 18.4% increase from last year and the most drastic six-month spike since the government began recording fatal crash data in 1975.
COVID-19 is killing us without the virus even entering our bodies
While it’s counterintuitive that fatalities increase with fewer vehicles on the road, the pandemic has amplified many of the main behaviors that lead to accidents. For example, speeding or talking on the phone while driving is reported to have increased in countries around the world during lockdowns, including in Australia, Denmark, Belgium and the UK. In the U.S., the percentage of injured road users with alcohol, marijuana or opioids in their system all increased during the pandemic's first year.
Emergency room at Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla, U.S.
The indirect toll of COVID
Of course, traffic accidents are only part of a long list of ways in which COVID-19 is killing us without the virus even entering our bodies. Indeed, as if the global death toll of nearly 5.5 million people wasn’t grim enough, the pandemic has indirectly killed many more. All around the world, sick people die as they are turned away from overcrowded hospitals or refrain from seeking care due to fears of infection. And in addition to what has been labeled a global mental health crisis, more people than expected have died during the pandemic from diabetes, Alzheimer’s, high blood pressure and pneumonia.
Still, as we continue to try to vaccinate and socially distance our way out of this crisis, paying attention to the indirect loss of life reveals pre-COVID issues that should also be the focus of our global efforts. That includes ramping up hospital capacity and readiness, better compensating medical workers, improving road safety, treating mental health and drug abuse, and — above all — reducing the economic inequality that has further worsened since the pandemic struck.