The coronavirus pandemic has left its mark on birth rates across the USA and Europe, a new paper reports. While this isn’t surprising, from a historical standpoint, it helps further illustrate just how significant its impact was on our lives.
Epidemics and disease are not modern inventions. They’ve been with us even before history started. And, whenever communities were strongly affected by epidemics, they made fewer babies. COVID-19 was in no way an exception to this rule, according to new research. The findings are based on data from high-income countries, namely the USA and EU states, which are the best-insulated from the effect of diseases. This only helps to reinforce the idea that societies, as a whole, tend to react to the spread of disease by taking their focus off of taking each other’s clothes off.
At the same time, different countries have seen different levels of reductions in their birth rates, underscoring the importance of policy and economic factors in making people feel safe during dramatic events such as an epidemic.
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“There was a lot of variation across countries in the decline,” explains Seth Sanders, the Ronald Ehrenberg Professor of Economics at the The New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Cornell University. ” We don’t address why, but we think a lot of it has to do with the degree of economic disruption, coupled with the degree of social support in the absence of employment.”
Epidemics and pandemics have, obviously, left huge marks on the human population throughout history. For starters, they tend to increase mortality quite significantly for short periods of time. But their effect also spreads to birthrates.
We’re in a much better shape to fight against disease today than ever before, but the team at Cornell reports that pandemics still take their toll on natality, even in rich, developed societies. Overall, they add, there were quite significant differences in the magnitude of this effect across countries, however.
In the United States, birth rates declined by 7.1% overall compared to pre-pandemic years. In Europe, the figures were more varied. Italy, Spain, and Portugal saw quite significant declines of -9.1%, -8.4%, and -6.6% respectively. A few countries — Denmark, Finland, Germany, and The Netherlands — saw no significant decline compared to pre-pandemic years.
Naturally, the issue of natality is not a straightforward matter. Couples take into account a lot of factors when making the decision whether to conceive or not — you could say they take everything into account. The USA is a more homogenous place, from an economic and cultural standpoint than the states which comprise the EU. This, alongside the structure of available census data, is likely why the team chose to treat them as a whole. States in the European Union retain a higher degree of sovereignty than the states that make up the USA, there are more marked differences in their economies and policies, so an event such as a pandemic is bound to impact each in different ways. Data availability is also a factor and, overall, census data in EU states is structured more along the lines of individual countries than the whole block.
Now, back to the issue at hand. In order to reach these conclusions, the authors pooled monthly live birth statistics from January 2016 to March 2021 to establish a baseline, pre-pandemic natality value for different areas. These would correspond to conceptions between April 2015 to June 2020 (in general, as not all pregnancies are delivered fully to term). These baselines were then confirmed with live birth counts for 2020 and 2021. Since this dataset was provisional and continuously updated over the course of the research, it was also corroborated with midyear population estimates from the United Nations (UN) Population Division’s World Population Prospects.
Several EU countries, namely Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Croatia, and Romania, were excluded from the study for data quality concerns.
On one hand, the results showcase that societies are still highly sensitive to events such as pandemics, and this effect can be seen in people’s willingness to procreate. On the other hand, we’ve never had more accurate population data than we do today, so observing the effects that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on birth rates today can teach us about the dynamics of how pandemics affected populations in the past. As for the trends observed during the COVID-19 pandemic, the authors point to the fact that policy and economic factors definitely play a part in how societies react to events such as pandemics
“When compared to the large fall in southern Europe, the relative stability of [crude birth rates] in northern Europe points to the role of policies in support of families and employment in reducing any impact on births.”
The paper “Early assessment of the relationship between the COVID-19 pandemic and births in high-income countries” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.