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Coronavirus and fertility

During the epidemic most people in the world were and are still at home. Many experts and pundits predicted that fertility rates would increase, but indeed the result has been exactly the opposite. The coronavirus pandemic has an even greater impact on younger generations with unstable jobs and economic losses that make young people think twice before getting married and having children.

For example, Japan’s birth rate had already fallen to 1.36 in 2019, the lowest level in twelve years. An ageing population is the general trend, but the new coronavirus will accelerate its pace. The Nikkei reported that economic constraints such as unemployment among informal workers would lead young people to avoid marriage and children for a long time.

Japan’s population forecasts assume that the decline will gradually increase as from 2021 and the growth pace will step up year on year. This situation is not limited to Asia. According to a study carried out by the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank, the number of children born in the United States this year may fall by 300,000-500,000 as against 2020, equivalent to a decrease of about 10% in the country’s yearly average population of 3.7 million.

The Brookings Institution report explained that a deeper and longer recession would mean that some people’s annuities and lifetime incomes would be reduced and some women would not only delay childbirth, but also decide to have fewer children.

Historical data has always shown that the number of births falls during an economic crisis. For example, the recession after the well-known financial crisis of 2008 was the reason why the number of births in the United States fell by about 400,000.

Unemployment is obviously the most important factor. The International Labour Organization’s online survey found that 17.1% of young respondents aged 18-29said they had not worked since the pandemic and even those who do work have reduced their working hours by 23%, leading to a severe drop in income.

The Director-General of the World Health Organisation has also said that this epidemic is a health crisis that usually occurs once every hundred years and its impact will be felt even more in the coming decades.

He believes that it will take longer to keep the pandemic under control, through the development of vaccines, and the negative impact on economic activities will last longer than expected.

A study carried out by the University of Washington predicts that by 2060 the world’s population will peak at 9.7 billion, before dropping to around 8.8 billion by the end of the century. Hence the pandemic could accelerate the decline.

Nora Spinks, Chief Executive Officer of the Canadian Vanier Institute of the Family Research, a charitable research organisation, has pointed out that while stability, security and predictability are factors that promote human fertility, the global health crisis is negatively affecting the willingness to reproduce: “The impact on reproductive intentions, i.e. what we see around the world, is that people are mostly deciding to postpone childbirth or temporarily not have children”

The Institute has noted that tragic events may have different effects on birth rates. “For example, after the attack of September 11, 2001, in the United States the number of births increased, especially in New York State, because that attack made people think about the value of human life and its impact on their sense of reaction and desire. The pandemic, however, has had the opposite effect”. The Canadian researcher should note, however, that while the 9/11 tragedy was a fait accompli that needed a response, the pandemic is by no means over and we cannot see the final event horizon, just to use an expression borrowed from the black hole terminology.

A study on the expected impact of the coronavirus crisis on fertility, published in the journalScience at the end of July, also pointed out that the high cost of child-rearing, unemployment and loss of income would inevitably reduce the fertility rate.

Understanding the potential patterns in future population levels is critical to anticipating and planning for changing age structures, resource and health care needs, as well as environmental and economic scenarios.

Future fertility models are key predictions for estimating future population sizes, but they are surrounded by substantial uncertainty and divergent estimation methodologies, leading to important differences in global population projections. Changing population sizes and age structures could have profound economic, social and geopolitical impacts in many countries.

The journal Lancet has developed a study whereby, in the baseline scenario, the global population is projected to peak at 9.73 billion in 2064 and decline to 8.79 billion in 2100.

The baseline projections for the five largest countries in 2100 are the following:

  • India: 1,09 billion
  • Nigeria: 791 million
  • China: 732 million
  • USA: 336 million
  • Pakistan: 248 million.

The results also suggest a changing age structure in many parts of the world in 2100 (with a total fertility rate [TFR] equal to 1.66), with 2.37 billion individuals aged over 65 and 1.70 billion aged under 20.

By 2050, 151 countries are expected to have a global TFR below replacement level (2.1), and 183 are projected to have a TFR below replacement level by 2100. In the baseline scenario 23 countries, including Japan, Thailand and Spain, are projected to have a population decline of over 50% from 2017 to 2100.

China’s population is expected to decline by 48% and China to become the largest economy by 2035. In the baseline scenario, however, the United States is expected to become once again the largest economy in 2098.

Lancet’s alternative scenarios suggest that reaching the Sustainable Development Goals for education and meeting contraceptive needs would result in a global population ranging between 6.29 and 6.88 billion in 2100.

The Lancet findings suggest that continuing trends in female educational attainment and access to contraception will accelerate fertility decline and slow population growth. A sustained TFR below replacement level in many countries, including China and India, would have economic, social, environmental and geopolitical consequences. Policy options for adapting to continued low fertility by supporting and improving women’s reproductive health will be crucial in the years to come.

With specific reference to Italy, it is assumed that its population – who peaked in 2014 with 61 million inhabitants – will halve to around 30.5 million in 2100. The same trend is assumed in relation to Spain (from 46 million in 2017 to about 23 million in 2100). What about the economic effects? While the UK, Germany and France are expected to remain among the top 10 countries in terms of GDP, by the end of the century Italy and Spain are expected to fall in the rankings: they will fall from 9th and 13th largest global economies in 2017 to 25th and 28th, respectively, in 2100.

The 23 countries that will see their population halved also include Japan (from 128 million to 60 million) and Thailand. In Portugal, there may be only five million people in 2100. Drastic falls in working-age population are also expected in countries such as India and China, which will hamper economic growth.

Giancarlo Elia Valori