Birth bust: how the pandemic stopped people making babies

A fifth fewer babies were born in parts of Europe nine months on from the start of the pandemic, as would-be parents said scenes inside Covid hospital wards persuaded them to put pregnancy plans on hold. 

Emerging data from high-income countries in Europe, the United States and Asia all suggest  birth rates fell in December 2020 and January 2021 by between seven and 22 per cent compared to the previous year. 

Jessica May, 32, in Newquay, has one child already but says she chose to postpone plans for another in March 2020 as she saw pictures of people dying in hospital corridors in Italy. 

“We weren’t certain about how safe even just going outside could be, and we definitely didn’t want to be in hospital,” she said.

While Ms May is now pregnant after a “surprise”, she says it has been a stressful time. 

It is unclear yet if the steep downward trends will be sustained or a blip. 

The emerging data applies to the beginning of the pandemic for many countries, when the situation was perhaps at its most frightening and unknown. While that has changed, the ongoing societal and economic impacts of Covid-19 and the associated lockdowns could end up having an even more serious effect, experts said. 

This would add to already declining birth rates in many countries, a phenomena raising profound questions around the world about how to structure societies where there are more grandparents than grandchildren. 

“Prior to Covid, fertility rates were already on a downward ski slope. Now you have this pandemic coming along like a big avalanche, pushing down birth rates even further,” said Dr Laura Lindberg, principal research scientist at the US reproductive health organisation, the Guttmacher Institute. 

“What that means in the real world is people’s decision making about whether and when to have a child has really been shifting, and shifting in a way in which the decision to have a baby is less common.” 

The data

In the US, emerging state-by-state data from December shows that birth rates fell on average by seven per cent when compared to December 2019, Dr Lindberg said. That could mean around a quarter of a million fewer babies born in America this year, figures backed up by predictions from the US-based Brookings Institution.

The picture is similar in Europe, data from national statistical agencies shows. In Italy, births across 15 cities fell by 21.9 per cent in December 2020 in comparison to the previous year. In France, traditionally the European country with the highest fertility rate, births dropped by 13 per cent in January this year, to 53,900, compared to January 2020. 

Countries in Asia, too, have posted similar declines – a sign the trend is sustained even in countries which have had less bruising pandemics. For example, South Korea saw a 7.8 per cent drop in births in December 2020, to 19,576. However, its birth rate has been declining steeply for some time. 

The exceptions to the rule among developed economies seem to be among several of the northern European countries, including the Netherlands and Denmark. Both have emerged relatively unscathed from the pandemic and have strong social safety nets.

The data for most of the UK only goes up to the third quarter of last year, before the impact of the pandemic can be seen. But the accountant PricewaterhouseCoopers has predicted that just 569,000 babies will be born in 2021, a fall of around eight per cent on last year.

Evidence from a decline in pregnancy-related Google searches, as well as surveys, also point to a dip in other countries where official data has not yet emerged.

Professor Sarah Harper, director of the Oxford University Institute of Population Ageing, said the fall in birth rates was not unexpected, and may last for a few years. 

She said the “lack of opportunity” during lockdowns was a factor, but stressed that unplanned pregnancies were not as big a driver in birth rates as planned conceptions, in high-income countries at least – although the picture may differ in places where access to contraception is a challenge.   

The future

What will happen next is harder to predict.  “Normally after a pandemic, we see a baby boom,” said Professor Harper, pointing to data about the Spanish flu in 1918 and the “replacement effect”, or drive to have more children to replace those lost.

But because this pandemic has largely killed older adults, its impact on people of childbearing age may be closer to that of an economic recession, she said.

This correlates strongly with lower birth rates; in the US, birth rates never fully recovered after the 2008 recession.  

“Job insecurity, housing insecurity, a general feeling that we will wait a while before we start this – this could be the long-term trend,” Professor Harper added.

And while the picture in high-income countries is becoming clear, what is happening in lower-income countries is much murkier, not least because of a lack of data.  

The United Nations’ Population Fund (UNFPA) has warned problems accessing contraception during lockdowns may have led to 1.4 million unintended pregnancies during the pandemic in lower-income countries. It is now tracking birth rates across a number of countries in order to get a better picture of the impact on planned pregnancies, too. 

Rachel Snow, chief of the UNFPA’s population and development branch, said: “I won’t say it’s a million dollar question, but it’s a pretty significant question for us all: what is the sustained impact?” 

She added that she “expects to see” a rapid decline in births in countries “where people have the access to the contraceptive technologies they need to make those choices. And that will be sustained as long as economic insecurity is sustained.” 

However, she said the impact of Covid-19 would be “very different in different countries”, as well as within countries, exposing existing inequalities. 

For many advanced economies already struggling with low birth rates and rapidly ageing populations though, further declines in birth rates could present a major challenge.

As populations age, the number of productive workers falls and health and social security costs rise sharply.

Politicians are left with just two options – to put economic and social policies in place which can sustain the birth rate or rely on immigration labour from regions of the world where the birth rate is much higher. Longer-term, it’s about re-thinking how societies work in a world where there are more old people than young. 

“The way forward is that we are going to be having fewer children. I cannot see anything in the future that will change that. We just need to accept that and adjust to it,” said Professor Harper.  

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