Births fell in countries like Spain to 1975 rates after the worst of the pandemic, although the decline in the birth rate lasted the two or three months of the first wave. For experts, in addition to fear and uncertainty about the future, the restrictions of the state of alarm and the impact of the virus itself could explain the delay in the decision to have a child.
Economic theory and a good handful of studies have already shown that, in times of uncertainty, fewer children are born. In wars and during economic crises, having children is left for better moments. Hector Pifarré i Arolas, researcher at the Center for Research in Economics and Health at Pompeu Fabra University sums it up very well: “The consensus in the literature [científica] is that, currently, fertility is procyclical. In other words, it follows the direction of the economic cycle: in expansionary phases it increases and decreases during recessions ”. There have been few pandemics in the recent past, so little is known about their impact. During the 1918 flu, for example, the birth rate (measured as the number of births per 1,000 people) dropped 13% in 191. But these were post-war times. What is happening with the covid pandemic?
A study that publishes PNAS This Monday he analyzed the birth rate in 22 developed countries. The work has faced two chronological problems. First of all, the nine months that, hopefully, pass from the decision to have a child until its birth. Furthermore, data collection, analysis, writing of these papers and their publication in scientific journals take time. So the investigation stops in those born in January 2021 and, only in some cases, February and March. In other words, the bulk of the data refers to those conceived in the spring of last year.
The countries where the birth rate fell the most were Spain, Portugal and Italy, where the fall was up to 11.2%
The analysis shows that the countries where the birth rate fell the most were Spain, Portugal and Italy, where the decrease was up to 11.2% compared to the same months of 2019, the last year without a pandemic. There are other notable decreases, such as the United States, 7.1% or Austria, 5.2%. The sharpest drops occurred in southern Europe in December and January. In addition, the researchers note that the drop is increasing between November 2020 and January 2021.
But how much of the decline is due to the coronavirus or what to other factors? The professor at Bocconi University (Italy) and main author of the study of PNAS Arnstein Aassve recalls that the birth data must be observed in the medium term. “The problem is that in many countries, fertility was on a downward trend. So if you compare year to year, you will find quite large effects, but they could not not be caused by the pandemic, “he says.
In their work, for example, they compare each month with that of the years 2016-2020. In many developed countries, the downward trend in the birth rate goes a long way. Thus, in Spain it has been declining since the economic crisis of 2008. Aassve mentions other factors, such as economic conditions and the labor market: “It is also important to observe the structure of the population pyramid. One of my coauthors has shown that one reason for fewer births comes from the fact that the low fertility maintained for decades would have resulted in fewer possible parents ”. Once these possible bias factors were controlled for, in 13 of the 22 countries analyzed the decreases are still relevant: the birth rate fell by 9.1% in Italy, 8.5% in Hungary, 8.4% in Spain or a 6.6% in Portugal.
The data for Spain that you have Liberty Gonzalez, professor of economics at Pompeu Fabra University (UPF), are even more dramatic. “They were falling behind, but in the months of December and January it was accentuated, with almost 20%,” he says. Specifically, based on the estimates of the National Institute of Statistics (INE), the birth rate in Spain fell by 18% in those months. Never before since 1975 has there been a decline of more than 10% -11%. González also takes his analysis to those born last June. These data are in line with those published by the INE a couple of weeks ago.
“The decline stops in February 2021, and between March and June we already have the same rates as in 2019”
Libertad González, professor of economics at Pompeu Fabra University
The most recent data helps reveal something that Aasvee already points out in the work of PNAS: there was a marked decline, but of short duration. “The decline stops in February 2021 and between March and June we already have the same rates as in 2019,” explains González. That is, after Pedro Sánchez’s speech, with that “the hardest has passed, the hardest has been left behind”, In May of last year, the end of the state of alarm and the arrival of summer, couples conceived children again.
The study published in PNAS it also shows that a decline in the birth rate is not the only response to the pandemic. In fact, in most of the countries that it analyzes, once the other possible factors were controlled for, the rates have been maintained, as in France, or even increased, as in Finland, the Netherlands, Switzerland and more modestly in Germany.
Professor at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (Germany) Natalie Nitsche, oblivious to the study of PNAS, highlights from this work the variety of situations in different countries. “Heterogeneity is common in the fertility response to disasters, both by country / region, as well as by parental age, social status …”, the German scientist wrote in an email.
On the causes of these differences between the different countries, both Aasvee, as for Nitsche, and González believe that it is too early to determine them. But they point to some to be confirmed.
For Aasvee, it must be borne in mind that the pandemic did not reach all sides at the same time. “I suspect that the rebound observed in some countries in June continued in July, but for many the second wave, which started in September, could be another shock. In other words, it will be necessary to review the birth rate this summer in many countries ”, he explains.
Controlled distorting effects such as long-term trends, in several countries the birth rate has been maintained or increased
Nitsche assures, for his part, that behind the heterogeneity could be “the intensity of the covid and the mortality ratio during the first wave, which probably caused fears about health and safety in the regions most affected at that first moment, such as Spain or Italy, or the degree of confinement and how it affected the emotional state, which could have altered sexual relationships and behaviors ”.
For González, what his German colleague points out is key to the Spanish case. “The reactions of governments or the severity of the pandemic can help to understand the differences between Spain and Germany,” he says. Here, in addition to more people dying every day, the confinement was stricter. But in addition to fear and uncertainty, there are other more practical reasons, such as the almost total stoppage of non-serious health care or the closure of fertility clinics. “Just as almost all economic activity was paralyzed, decisions to have children were paralyzed,” says the UPF economist. We will have to wait until after the summer to see what happened to the children in the successive waves of the pandemic.