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The Covid-19 Baby Bust Is Here

Nine months after the pandemic began, birthrates began to fall in many advanced economies, early data shows

In Italy, births plunged 21.6% in December from the previous year, according to first estimates by Italy’s statistical agency.
PHOTO: MATTEO BAZZI/EPA/SHUTTERSTOCK

By Margherita StancatiUpdated March 4, 2021 8:31 am ET

ROME—Angela Di Iorio wanted to be pregnant with her first baby by now. Instead, the 36-year-old Italian, who just postponed her wedding for a second time, is starting to wonder whether she should have a child at all.

“Our plan was always to get married and then to start a family,” said Ms. Di Iorio, an osteopath from Rome whose fiance has been out of work for nearly a year, ever since a gym they co-own was forced to close because of measures to stop the spread of Covid-19. “We no longer have the kind of stability my partner and I worked so hard to achieve. And I’m getting older,” she said.

A year into the pandemic, early data and surveys point to a baby bust in many advanced economies from the U.S. to Europe to East Asia, often on top of existing downward trends in births.

A combination of health and economic crises is prompting many people to delay or abandon plans to have children. Demographers warn the dip is unlikely to be temporary, especially if the pandemic and its economic consequences drag on.

“All evidence points to a sharp decline in fertility rates and in the number of births across highly developed countries,” said Tomas Sobotka, a researcher at the Wittgenstein Center for Demography and Global Human Capital in Vienna. “The longer this period of uncertainty lasts, the more it will have lifelong effects on the fertility rate.”

A survey carried out by Italian research group Osservatorio Giovani between late March and early April in Western Europe’s five largest countries—Germany, France, Italy, Spain and the U.K.—found that over two-thirds of respondents who initially planned to have a child in 2020 decided to postpone or abandon plans to conceive over the next year.

Baby Bust

Birthrates dropped significantly in many countries in December.

Births, change from a year earlier

Austria

10%

5

0

–5

–10

–15

2020

’21

Belgium

10%

5

0

–5

–10

–15

2020

’21

France

10%

5

0

–5

–10

–15

2020

’21

Hungary

10%

5

0

–5

–10

–15

2020

’21

Japan

10%

5

0

–5

–10

–15

2020

’21

Sources: Statistics Austria; Statistics Belgium; France’s National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies; Hungarian Central Statistical Office; Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare

In the U.S., a survey by the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization, found that one-third of women polled in late April and early May wanted to delay childbearing or have fewer children because of the pandemic.

The Brookings Institution estimated in December that, as a result of the pandemic, 300,000 fewer babies would be born in the U.S. in 2021 compared with last year. That estimate is based on survey evidence and the historical experience that a one-percentage-point increase in the unemployment rate reduces the birthrate by roughly 1%.

For many countries, detailed data on births in late 2020 are still months away. Where numbers are available, they aren’t encouraging.

Japan, France and Belgium are among the nations reporting unusually abrupt drops in births nine months after the pandemic began, compared with a year earlier. In France, the number of births in January was down 13.5% compared with a year earlier, a much steeper drop than the 1.7% monthly decline recorded on average during the first 10 months of 2020.

In Hungary, one of few European countries where fertility was rising before the pandemic, the number of births fell sharply year-over-year in December.

The worst-affected country so far appears to be Italy. The country has one of the world’s oldest populations and has struggled with declining birthrates for years, partly the consequence of a sclerotic economy that left young people behind. Then came Covid-19, which hit Italy early and hard.

Births in Italy plunged 21.6% in December from the previous year, according to first estimates by Italy’s statistical agency based on data from 15 major cities. That is a far bigger drop than during the first 10 months of 2020, when births declined 3.3% on average. Overall in 2020, nearly twice as many people died in Italy than were born there.

Italy’s and Europe’s continuing health emergency and struggle to bounce back economically mean the baby crisis is unlikely to end soon. An added factor is the long-term impact of people being unable to start new relationships during the pandemic.

“The phenomenon of declining births has reached an unprecedented level,” said Maria Vicario, who heads Italy’s national midwives association. “The problems that we had before are still here. On top of that, weddings are being postponed and more young couples are unemployed. People who lose their jobs can’t think about a pregnancy.”

Historically, traumatic events such as pandemics, wars and economic crises have often resulted in fewer births. Some baby busts are short-lived and followed by rebounds. But the longer a crisis lasts, the higher the chances that potential births aren’t just postponed but never happen, say demographers.

No rebound followed the global financial crisis, for instance. The U.S. birthrate—after rising to its highest level in decades in 2007—plunged after the 2008 crisis and has declined gradually ever since.

A nurse making a video of a newborn baby in the maternity ward at Frimley Park Hospital in Surrey, England, in 2020.

PHOTO: STEVE PARSONS/PA WIRE/ZUMA PRESS

Declining births are bad news for advanced economies. Young people fuel innovation, driving growth, and are needed to fund pensions and healthcare systems in aging societies. A dearth of workers makes it difficult to sustain rising productivity.

That is a concern in China. The world’s most populous country was already on a path of declining births due to the lingering effects of its one-child policy, abolished in late 2015 after three decades.

Chinese couples can now have two children, but many who were undecided about having a first or second child postponed their plans in 2020. Surveys have found concerns ranging from uncertain incomes to fear of contracting the virus during maternity checkups.

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Liu Xiaoqing, a 32-year-old from Beijing, said the pandemic turned her against the idea of having a second child, which she and her husband had been considering. The mother of a 2-year-old said, “I can’t even protect one child from a big disaster like this with absolute certainty, let alone two children.”

China has yet to release nationwide 2020 population data but several local governments have reported double-digit-percentage declines in the number of births from 2019.

Some countries are trying to increase financial support for marriage and pregnancy. In Japan, which has the oldest population of any major nation, that has included more aid for fertility treatment since January.

THE CORONAVIRUS CRISIS

The number of births in Japan dropped 9.3% in December from a year earlier, compared with an average of 2.3% during the first 10 months of 2020.

Haruka Matsui stopped going for fertility treatment in December when a fresh wave of Covid-19 cases hit Japan. “It made it much harder for me to visit the clinic,” said the 34-year-old working mother of a 3-year-old boy. Ms. Matsui, who became pregnant naturally for her first baby, struggled to conceive a second one before she started treatment in August. “I will hold it off for some time, as I’m not that old.”

A combination of health and economic crises is prompting many people to delay or abandon plans to have children.

PHOTO: SINA SCHULDT/DPA/ZUMA PRESS

—Miho Inada in Tokyo and Liyan Qi in New York contributed to this article.

Write to Margherita Stancati at margherita.stancati@wsj.com

Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8

Appeared in the March 5, 2021, print edition as ‘Covid Pressures Spark Global Pregnant Pause.’ Wall Street Journal

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