The coronavirus pandemic is more likely to lead to a baby bust than a baby boom in the United States — possibly leaving the nation with about half a million fewer births than otherwise would be expected, experts at the Brookings Institution and nonprofit March of Dimes predict.
Researchers at Brookings in Washington, DC examined data from previous economic studies on fertility in the United States during the recession of 2007-2009 and the 1918 influenza pandemic.
After analyzing that data, along with other factors such as job losses during the coronavirus pandemic, the researchers predicted in a report published last week that the United States could see a drop of around 300,000 to 500,000 births due to COVID-19.
Dr. Rahul Gupta, chief medical and health officer at March of Dimes in New York, told CNN on Monday that he and his colleagues have come to a similar conclusion. Gupta also wrote an opinion piece about this “baby bust” in The Washington Post last week.
“When we started to do the math, we looked at the 1918 pandemic — as did Brookings — and we saw that there was about a 10% drop in fertility about nine to 10 months after peak mortality,” Gupta said on Monday.
“A drop in 10% or 15% or 20% in the next few years could really spell trouble,” Gupta said. “The economic and demographic implications that stem from a severe drop in pregnancies could have a tremendous impact on the next generation, which is why this is an important and very serious issue.”
According to the Brookings Institution, data from the recession suggests that the US birth rate dropped from about 69 births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44 in 2007 to 63 births per 1,000 women in 2012 — a decline of about 9% or roughly 400,000 fewer births.
The Brookings team also found that in 1918, each spike in deaths due to the flu pandemic led an otherwise steady birth rate to fall roughly 21 births per 1,000 — representing a 12.5% decline.
They also noted that the uncertainty and anxiety associated with the coronavirus pandemic, job losses and to some extent physical distancing, could play a role in a further decline of births. This is something that Gupta, a specialist in internal medicine and preventive medicine, said he has seen among his own patients.
“As I see my patients, I see more and more demands on family planning and contraceptives and other things, coupled with the economic forces and people losing their jobs,” Gupta said, adding that the lives of many of his patients changed drastically, as they not only had to work from home but as their home lives became hectic with their children having to stay home, too.
“I started to ask my other colleagues around about what’s going on and they agree that there’s more demand for family planning services like oral contraceptives,” Gupta said. “For most of my patients, they were really, really busy and they were fearful of becoming pregnant.”
This new research has some limitations. The findings are based on comparisons with two previous events and might not reflect the real nuances of the current coronavirus pandemic. “Some of these estimates are also dependent on what happens next,” Gupta said.
“For example, the fear factor could be addressed with a robust plan and call to action that prevents a second wave of Covid infections this fall. On the other hand, if you do get several waves like we saw in 1918, the situation could be even worse,” Gupta said. “This pandemic and our response to it and the trust of the public in its government could have a consequential, long-term impact.”
Yet if predictions estimate an upcoming decline in births, then where did the idea of there possibly being a baby boom during the coronavirus pandemic come from?
“Basically, the bottom line is this: when there’s a storm warning, there’s some data that suggests that the rate of pregnancies increase, but actually when destruction happens, like a tsunami, then actually your births go down,” Gupta said.
“So there’s a difference in what the impact on society is of any natural calamity or a pandemic — and the forecast suggests that this is much more serious than a tropical storm. It’s a tsunami.”