It is not just that many more people are dying as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. In several countries, considerably fewer are being born.
France’s national statistics institute was one of the first to publish figures for the number of children born in January — nine months after the country was stuck in its first Covid-19 lockdown — and the provisional data show a startling decline: there were 53,900 births in the month, 13 per cent down on the figure for January 2020.
For France, a country that has traditionally had the highest fertility rate in the 27-member EU, it marked the biggest fall in births since the abrupt end of the baby boom in the 1970s.
Births had also fallen 7 per cent in the previous month compared with the same period a year earlier, leaving the total number of babies born in France last year, 735,000, at the lowest level since the end of the second world war.
“There are a lot of fantasies that when couples find themselves at home they will have more children. But that is something of an idyllic vision,” said Anne Solaz of Ined, France’s National Institute of Demographic Studies. “In fact there are some who find it hard being together all the time.”
Preliminary data also show sharp declines in the number of births in Spain and Italy, two countries already facing the challenge of ageing populations. Evidence points to similar trends in the UK and the US, too.
A collapse in the number of newborns in industrialised economies following a pandemic or an economic crisis — such as the depression of the 1930s or the 1973 oil crisis — is not usually a surprise to demographers. Potential parents are typically anxious about job security and their ability to support their offspring.
“What’s different this time is that the fall in births is really big,” said Arnaud Regnier-Loilier, Ined’s director of research. “It’s a bit unprecedented, but the crisis is also unprecedented.”
He pointed to the “great anguish” and “climate of fear” last year as people worried not only about their livelihoods but also the risk — now known to be very slight — of young children falling sick from the virus.
Italy, the first European country to feel the full force of the Covid-19 crisis, recorded 21.6 per cent fewer births in December — nine months after the country went into lockdown — compared with the same month the year before.
For 2020 as a whole, Italy’s national statistical agency Istat said there were about 400,000 births, down from 420,000 the year before, while the country recorded 647,000 deaths — leaving the largest gap between the two since the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918.
Istat has linked the collapse in births to the collapse in the number of weddings, which fell by more than 50 per cent in the first 10 months of last year, meaning couples were less likely to try for a baby before they were able to hold their nuptials.
France, too, recorded fewer marriages last year. They were down 34 per cent from 2019, largely because wedding celebrations were first forbidden and then subject to restrictions on guest numbers.
Recorded births have fallen in Spain in the wake of the pandemic — there was a 22 per cent year-on-year decrease in December and a 23 per cent drop in January — although the difficulty of registering a birth at the height of the crisis may have affected the reliability of some of the monthly numbers.
If the “baby bust” were to persist, it would have profound implications for economies and societies, affecting everything from immigration to education and pensions. Yet it is not necessarily a worldwide phenomenon.
The pandemic appears to have triggered a birth boom in the Philippines, with the UN warning that the difficulty of obtaining contraception and medical attention has led to a surge in unwanted pregnancies and deaths in childbirth.
There are also signs that some northern European countries have either been unaffected or may have experienced the opposite of the trend noted in France, Italy and Spain.
Sweden recorded a 6.4 per cent drop in the number of births in January, according to figures published this week by the country’s statistics office, but the Netherlands and Finland both reversed years of decline and reported slight year-on-year increases in new babies recorded in January.
Covid-19 did not hit the Nordic nations and parts of northern Europe as hard as some other countries, particularly early on, which may explain why birth rates were higher there at the start of this year.
A question now is whether the falls in births in the affected countries are a temporary blip or a trend that will persist. “Generally, when there are crises, once they are past there is a tendency to return to a fertility level that is close to or higher than before the crisis,” said Regnier-Loilier.
However, Teresa Castro, a demographer at Spain’s national research council, predicted births for the whole of 2021 could fall very significantly.
“I don’t think this is a transitory phenomenon,” she said. “Uncertainties are one of the leading reasons why people don’t have children. And people are still confronting significant health, and in particular economic, uncertainties.”
Additional reporting by Miles Johnson in Rome, John Reed in Bangkok and Richard Milne in Oslo