PARIS — Wouldn't it be so sweet to think so. Locked up together for weeks in the spring of 2020 due to a rampant global coronavirus outbreak, young couples would naturally do... what young couples do. Ooh la la!

It stands to reason, therefore, that fast forward nine months and France would have a baby boom — just like in the post-war years, or when a power outage in 1965 plunged New York into darkness on a cold November night and the world wondered how everyone in Manhattan stayed warm.

Only that never happened. In 1965, the power outage did not stimulate the birth rate. Contrary to what the New York Times reported at the time, mathematicians, analyzing births in the city, concluded that there was "not a shred of evidence of a blackout effect."

There was a spike in sales of pregnancy tests in April, but the pandemic looks to have resulted in a decline in birth rates, thus amplifying a trend that began in 2014 and resulted in 2020 having the lowest number of births since 1945.

This is not unique to France. In all developed countries, the pandemic is upsetting fertility. For practical reasons, many couples ended up living apart during lockdown. Others discovered that their relationship was strained when stuck together at home, or their homes were too small to accommodate a child. Assisted human reproduction centers have closed their doors. One night stands, which do sometimes result in a baby nine months later, were impossible.

Not tonight, honey

There was also a clear psychological impact. The virus dampened the mood. According to an Ifop survey in April 2020 for the Charles.co website, couples who reported having no sexual intercourse in the past month jumped to 21%, twice as many as reported in a previous survey.

A study conducted by a team of university psychologists in the United States revealed that almost half of Americans have had less frequent sexual relations during the pandemic, opting instead to experiment with practices that are not conducive to fertilization.

Beyond that, the high level of uncertainty has forced many young couples to reconsider their plans for the future. During the first lockdown in Europe, a team of Italian statisticians conducted a survey for Ipsos on child plans. Their conclusion? Fertility plans have been revised in all countries. Some couples have postponed plans in hopes of a better future, but others have completely abandoned hopes for making a family.

The financial crash caused by the pandemic is also influencing birth rates — Photo: Kristina Stedul Fabac/Xinhua/ZUMA

Researchers from the German Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research did a different kind of analysis: looking at Google search trends. They predicted a 15% drop in births between November 2020 and February 2021 in the United States, half as much as observed after the financial crisis of 2008, and nearly the same drop as during the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918-1919. James Pomeroy, HSBC's chief economist, estimated that the number of births worldwide could fall by as much as 10-15% in 2020-2021.

They interpreted the decline to be not only due to psychological reasons, but also the impact of the economic crash caused by the pandemic. The desire to have children falls as economic production weakens.

Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine, researchers from the American think-tank Brookings sounded the alarm last June about a "baby bust." In a report updated in December, they pointed out that "a one-point increase in the unemployment rate is associated with a one-point drop in the number of births. The rise in unemployment due to the pandemic and measures to contain it could lead to a drop in the number of births by 200,000 in the United States in 2021."

The real question is what will happen when the pandemic ends and the economy returns to somewhat solid growth. After the Spanish flu, the birth rate rebounded sharply as postponed projects finally came to fruition and others desired to compensate for deaths. After the great financial crisis of 2008-2009, however, it did not return to its previous level.

This is an issue primarily for developed countries. Contrarily, the pandemic is actually resulting in a baby boom for some emerging economies. In the Philippines, for example, women haven't had access to contraception and family planning due to the lockdown. In a country that has tried to stem its population from exploding, this too is a serious problem.


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