From the Journals

COVID-19 linked to baby bust in high-income countries


If COVID-19 has caused millions of deaths, it may also have prevented or at least led to a postponement of many births.

In an assessment of the pandemic’s early effects, Arnstein Aassve, PhD, and colleagues found a significant COVID-19–related decline in crude birth rates (CBRs) in 7 of 22 high-income countries, particularly in Southwestern Europe.

Dr. Aassve, an economist at the Carlo F. Dondena Center for Research on Social Dynamics and Public Policy at the Università Commerciale Luigi Bocconi, Milan, and colleagues report the results in an article published online August 30 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Defining the start of the COVID-19 pandemic as February 2020, the study identifies strong declines in Italy (-9.1%), Hungary (-8.5%), Spain (-8.4%), and Portugal (-6.6%) beyond those predicted by past trends. In the United States, CBRs fell by 7.1% relative to 2019 for births occurring in Nov. and Dec. 2020 following conceptions in February and March of that year.

Significant declines in CBR also occurred in Belgium, Austria, and Singapore.

A year-to-year comparison of the mean for monthly CBRs per 1,000 population before and during the pandemic suggests a negative difference for all countries studied except for Denmark, Finland, Germany, and the Netherlands, Dr. Aassve and colleagues write. These findings may have policy implications for childcare, housing, and the labor market.

The Milan researchers compared monthly vital statistics data on live births from the international Human Fertility Database for the period of Jan. 2016 to March 2021. These figures reflect conceptions carried to term between April 2015 and June 2020. The 22 countries in the analysis represent 37% of the total reported COVID-19 cases and 34% of deaths worldwide.

The study findings align with surveys on “fertility intentions” collected early in the first COVID-19 wave in Germany, France, Spain, and the United Kingdom. These surveys indicated that 73% of people who were planning pregnancies in 2020 either decided to delay the pregnancy or they abandoned their plans.

“The popular media speculated that the lockdown would lead to a baby boom, as couples spent more time together,” Dr. Aassve told this news organization. “There’s very little evidence of this when you look to previous disasters and shocks, and the first data suggest more of an immediate collapse than a boom. But as you also see from the paper, the collapse is not seen everywhere.” Other current studies suggest the fertility drop is immediate but temporary, says Dr. Aassve, who is also a professor of demography.

Interestingly, Dr. Aassve and colleagues found that CBRs were relatively stable in Northern Europe. The authors point to supportive social and family policies in that region that might have reduced the effect of the pandemic on births. “These factors are likely to affect CBRs in the subsequent pandemic waves,” they write. They call for future studies to assess the full population implications of the pandemic, the moderating impact of policy interventions, and the nexus between short- and long-run effects in relation to the various waves of the COVID-19 pandemic.


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