Decoding Falling Birth Rate and COVID-19 in Developed Countries

While media pundits have speculated a ‘baby boom’ following the COVID-19 pandemic as couples stay confined in their homes, a ‘baby bust’ ensued. 

The Pandemic Baby Bust:

In an episode of the critically acclaimed show from HBO, True Detective (2014), the brooding and forlorn character of detective Rust Cohle can be heard saying, ‘I think the honorable thing for our species to do is to deny our programming. Stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction.’ The subject of our discussion here does not exactly brew from the anti-natalistic sentiments of detective Cohle but brings up the issues of a plummeting birth rate in a bleak pandemic scenario. While media pundits have speculated a ‘baby boom’ following the COVID-19 pandemic as couples stay confined in their homes, a ‘baby bust’ ensued. 

Developed and rich countries in the world have been witnessing a sharp decline in the birth rate due to the onset of the COVID-19 Pandemic while poorer countries have been observed to experience higher birth rates. It is no surprise that the pandemic has caused repercussions in all walks of life. In the US, one study has shown how the general well-being of citizens has declined significantly between January and July 2020. The ways social distancing norms, lockdowns, and economic conditions will impact populations have appeared to work out in different ways for richer and poorer nations globally. Closer inspections can allow us to understand societal inequality and anxieties in a crisis-stricken population. 

A study from the Bocconi University of Milan revealed that Italy has seen the sharpest decline in the birth rate due to the pandemic in 2020. The country had 16,000 fewer births with a reduction in the birth rate by 9.1%. Moving to France, in December 2020 there occurred 8% fewer births than last year- these babies can be dubbed as the ‘COVID babies’.  In January 2021 there were 13% fewer, in February the figure was around 8%. A slight increase of  1% and 4% births happened in March and April respectively but the number went down again (2% fewer births) in May 2021. In the initial spurt of the COVID-19 waves, research conducted by Luppi et al demonstrated that in five European countries, citizens are revising their fertility plans. Like France, over 50% of people in Germany chose not to have a child in 2020. In the United States, the birth rate declined 7.1%. 

Understanding the Underlying Reasons:

It is quite a rational choice for people to postpone having a child during a pandemic. Several industries in the economy have been hard hit due to lockdowns. Secondly, an overburdened healthcare system under the pandemic is not ideal for prospective parents to imagine having a child in. A third, grim factor is also at work: the death toll of the disease itself. Population decline has also taken place with enforcements of border closure, as in Australia, and for the obvious- the steep death toll of the pandemic. Mandatory social distancing for COVID-19 prevention might have meant fewer social encounters and fewer new couplings that could preclude a pregnancy. One survey from the Kinsey Institute has also indicated a decreased sexual activity among adults in the US. There were also obvious anxieties about catching COVID-19 during pregnancy.  For some women, lockdowns and work from home meant added and disproportionate burden of housework. Thus, the idea of a newborn in the house meant additional pressure

A change in birth rate due to economic instability is not a novel phenomenon. Researchers have documented the linkages between the economic cycle and the fertility cycle in developed countries. For example, the industrialized countries including the US experienced a reduction in fertility during The Great Recession. Nathan Seltzer in his work has shown that even in the post-recession United States the fertility rates are yet to rise. He had argued that financial uncertainty forming out of the ongoing structural changes in U.S. labor markets have compelled people to pause their plans for a baby or forgo it. In recent years, uncertainties with the future in an era of climate change has also been found to be a reason behind why people now think twice before having children. 

Reproductive choices are situated in the social context and arise from there. Thus, in some developed countries, the birth rate followed a different graph. Northern European countries (belonging to high-income groups, according to the World Bank) which provide better social security and policies pertaining to families and employment ensured a relatively stable crude birth rate. For example, the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark and Finland, had either little or no fall in births in December 2020 or January 2021. Low- and middle-income countries of the world, on the other hand, suffered from the unavailability of contraception and health facilities more than their higher-income counterparts. Coupled with it, the already existing poverty, lack of resources, and education make it difficult to practice family planning. In India, medical facilities reported a drop by 15% and 23% of the distribution of contraceptives between December and March respectively. However, it must be noted that there is no generalized trend in birth rates in one given geographic setting. There will exists an overall trend but certain variations in birth rates while an ongoing crisis can be observed depending upon the class, race, and ethnicity of the group in a given country. Further variables such as partnership status, and age, are found to influence reproductive choices. The social, cultural, and economic position of a birth-giving person impacts the choice he/she/they has in it. 

The Takeaway: Concluding Remarks

As I write on this issue, one needs to be cautious about what such demographic anxieties can lead to. Often bodies with uteruses are subject to policies and measures which disproportionately push them in vulnerable positions. Patterns of birth in a certain society during the COVID-19 instead should be studied to aid in better policymaking around population control, healthcare equity, and contraceptive accessibility, and childcare support, etc. 


Deepsikha Dasgupta completed her undergraduate degree in Sociology at the Presidency University, Kolkata. Her research interests include social anthropology, religion, gender, and medical anthropology. She is currently a postgraduate student at South Asian University, New Delhi.

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