Explained: The pandemic has resulted in fewer babies…and that’s not good news

Research shows that the US is facing the biggest slump in births in a century, France has recorded its lowest birth rate since World War II and China has received 15% fewer registrations for babies.

In the initial days of the Covid-19 pandemic, the general belief was that the lockdowns would mean people staying home and cozying up to their partners. However, the reality is much more sober than what everyone expected and the pandemic has actually led to a baby bust rather than a boom.

Research shows that the US is facing the biggest slump in births in a century, France has recorded its lowest birth rate since World War II and China has received 15% fewer registrations for babies. According to projections, population growth will practically be zero by 2100 and 23 nations — including Spain and Japan — are expected to see their populations halve.

Countries that are witnessing the slump

China has been among the worst-hit with authorities receiving 15% fewer registrations for babies. Demographers and social commentators have said the reasons for the low birthrates include the high costs of housing and education, and growing rejection of marriage among young women.

According to the figures released by China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs, only 8.1 million couples registered for marriages in 2020, a 12% drop from the previous year. Marriage registration last year was also the lowest since 2003 and only accounted for 60% of those in 2013, when such registrations saw a peak.

Also in the list are Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan — three countries which have the world’s lowest fertility rates. While the fertility rate of Singapore is barely 1%, that of South Korea and Taiwan have dropped below that.

Italy, which was one of the first Covid hotspots in the world, has also seen a drop in birth rates. Births in 15 cities there plummeted 22% in December, exactly nine months after the pandemic struck. Similar trends are appearing elsewhere too: Japan saw the fewest newborns on record in 2020, while French childbirths tumbled to the lowest since World War II.

The situation in the United States of America, which has been seeing a slump in birth rate since 2019, has become alarming. In 2019, 3.75 million babies were born in the US — the lowest number since 1985. A study by the Brookings Institution estimated that as many as 500,000 fewer babies might be born in 2021 — a 13% drop from 2019. A survey by the Guttmacher Institute showed that 34% wanted to delay pregnancy or have fewer children because of uncertainties brought about by the pandemic.

Covid-19 and the declining birth rate

Economic factors largely affect an individual’s decision about whether and when to have a baby. With the pandemic having hit economies around the world, uncertainty prevails in the minds of all. It is a proven theory that when the labour market of a country is weak, aggregate birth rates decline and when the labour market improves, birth rates improve.

At the individual level, too, there is also a well-documented link between changes in income and births: When income increases, people often expand their families and when people experience job or income loss, they have fewer children. A great example of this would be the Great Recession in the US. The states that had recorded higher unemployment rates had experienced a decline in birth rate.

According to HSBC Holdings Plc economist James Pomeroy, “The longer and more severe the recession, the steeper the fall in birth rates, and the more likely it is that a fall in birth rates becomes a permanent change in family planning.”

The study of European adults’ fertility plans found people in Germany, France and the UK, who lived in the areas worst affected by Covid-19, were more likely to postpone having children. At the same time, a number of wealthier northern European countries that have dealt relatively well with the pandemic, such as the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark and Finland, are reporting little or no decline in births in December or January.

Health concerns have also led to couples postponing their babies or avoiding childbearing. Demographic history of the 1918-19 Spanish Flu clearly indicates that a pandemic is usually followed by a decline in birth rates. Added to this is the mental concerns that have come with the pandemic.

Having shifted to the work-from-home model, millions of parents are dealing with the stress of combining work responsibilities and supervising their children who majorly remain at home as schools and other educational institutions are shut. With the situation not having changed much in the last one year, parents, or prospective ones, have ditched their plans of having a baby. Moreover, restrictions on social activities also mean some relationships that would have started in 2020 never took root.

To understand the ‘baby bust’ following the pandemic, Joshua Wilde and his team at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Germany studied Google searches for pregnancy-related terms, such as pregnancy tests. The study shows that searches for such terms have fallen, owing to which, the authors predict a 15% decline in new births.

The UN’s sexual and reproductive health agency says the pandemic has caused nearly 12 million women in 115 countries to lose access to family planning services.

Impact of the decline in birth rate

A drop in births induces a societal change that has long-term economic effects. With governments having racked up enormous borrowings to fund economic aid, the decline in new births will eventually lead to a smaller workforce, which portends lower economic productivity and fewer workers to contribute to the tax base. It also means a lower ratio of workers to retirees.

Such a blow would be particularly crippling in parts of Asia and Europe with aging populations. Economists have projected that 10% to 15% fewer adults may join the workforce. With the economic fallout, such as joblessness, like to last even when the health crisis abates, a decline in the birth rate will eventually hurt the potential growth of a country as spending on healthcare and public pension will keep rising, but tax revenues won’t.

Probable Solutions

To increase birth rates, many countries have introduced policies like allowances or child tax credits. Recently, one was proposed by President Joe Biden under which parents would get $3,600 (around Rs 2.6 lakh) per child under the age of six and $3,000 (around Rs 2.2 lakh) per child of age six through 17 for a single year.

The Singapore government, too, has boosted cash payments to encourage citizens to have children despite the coronavirus.

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