EUROPE: With the impending doom of an economic crisis and fears of a foreign infection with limited knowledge of post-infection health defects, the entire globe found itself barred, literally, in their homes, for the first time in history as the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
The internet was pumped with several bawdy jokes about couples being locked up in homes, resulting in an explosion of “lockdown babies”. In a twist of fate, that was not what happened.
New research has revealed that Europe witnessed a 14% drop in natality rate in January 2021 compared to previous years- a decline probably triggered by the first significant wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. January 2021 was nine to ten months after the imposition of Covid-related lockdowns across the European Union.
Longer lockdowns resulted in fewer pregnancies, research suggests.
The decline was even more prominent and profound in countries where health systems were in jeopardy due to low testing, a limited number of test kits, lockdown violations, and inappropriate isolation periods.
Few of the poorest countries in eastern Europe, including Lithuania and Romania- recorded the biggest drops- at 28% and 23%, respectively, as the governments were failing to stay afloat amid raging infections, unaided by proper testing tools or isolation restrictions or copious amounts of infections overburdening the struggling health system.
Meanwhile, Sweden, which had no lockdown, saw normal birth rates, according to research findings published in the journal Human Reproduction.
Researchers say the findings may lead to “long-term consequences on demographics, particularly in western Europe where there are aging populations”.
“The longer the lockdowns, the fewer pregnancies occurred in this period, even in countries not severely affected by the pandemic,” said Dr Leo Pomar, a midwife sonographer at Lausanne University Hospital, who wrote the study.
“We think that couples’ fears of a health and social crisis at the time of the first wave of COVID-19 contributed to the decrease in live births nine months later.”
One of the richest and most stable economies in the EU with universal healthcare and advanced technology, Germany, witnessed a slight dip of 0.6% in the birth rate in 2020 and was steady during January, suggesting that the first coronavirus lockdown did little to threaten natality rates or fertility decisions.
Before the pandemic even hit, Europe’s largest economy was heavily focused on labour, ambition, and productivity, especially women, who were forced to strike a balance between conservative social norms and ambitious careers.
Then, Germany reported a 6% rise in births in February of 2021, nine months after the first wave of coronavirus started to ebb in May 2020 and the first lockdown restrictions were lifted.
Research suggests social distancing measures, fears related to the virus, and the social and economic crisis stimulated by the pandemic were some of the major reasons or at least “indirect factors that played a role in the decision of couples to postpone pregnancies”.
Additionally, England and Wales saw a 13% drop in January 2021, compared with 2018 and 2019- while the number of babies born in Scotland decreased by 14%.
In March 2021, births returned to a similar rate to the pre-pandemic level, corresponding to a rebound nine to 10 months after the end of lockdowns, the study says.
But researchers say that the rebound is insufficient to compensate for the birth drop just two months before.
“The fact that the rebound in births does not seem to compensate for the decrease in January 2021 could have long-term consequences on demographics, particularly in western Europe where there are aging populations,” Dr Pomar said.
When nationwide results in France were released nine months after the first lockdown occurred in March 2021, there was a 2% decline in fertility rates.
Eva Beaujouan, a researcher in fertility and family trends studies at the University of Vienna, said, “The way people actually experience a lockdown and a pandemic is very different from how they may have projected it. It was much more stressful [than expected] and resulted in some very big changes for people in terms of work and unemployment. Instead of having babies, this may push them to postpone such projects because of the uncertainty and new circumstances.”
For single individuals, the possibility of conception was even more difficult. “If you were single, the restrictions meant that it was harder for you to meet a partner because you were stuck at home all the time.”
On a more serious note, she added that some people were obliged to postpone procreation plans because fertility clinics and other medical facility infrastructure were shut down during France’s first lockdown.
Another European country where couples were too anxious or busy to even kiss their partners amid a raging pandemic, Italy, saw a staggering 160-year-low in January 2021 when its birth rate plunged by a 13.6% decline.
In a little over a decade, birth rates have dropped by one-third, with 404,892 babies born in 2020 from 576,659 in 2008.
In Spain too, only 23,226 babies were born in December, 20.4% fewer than in December 2019 and the lowest since 1941, when such records started, the INE statistics agency said.
“Even though the number of births has been in a constant decline trend for several years, the fall has been accentuated nine months after the lockdown during the first state of (coronavirus) emergency,” an INE statement said.
In Spain, births were already falling fast before the coronavirus, posting a 16% drop between 2014 and 2019.
Now, nearly two years after the pandemic first began, people have begun to live with the presence of the once-foreign virus and almost adapted to it, faintly looking forward to an uncertain future filled with challenges.
Lower birth rates indicate fewer and older workers, a prominent lack of young labour in the economy. This could prove fatal to productivity and labour output, and strain public schemes and welfare systems, widening the gap between the richer north of Europe and the poorer south.