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The COVID-19 pandemic is expected to lower the birth rate. Here’s why that matters

Economic uncertainty, home-schooling pressures and safety concerns likely to impact number of births

Brandie Weikle · CBC News · Posted: Aug 03, 2020

In this Aug. 7, 2018, file photo, a doctor performs an ultrasound scan on a pregnant woman at a hospital in Chicago. The COVID-19 pandemic is expected to create a drop in the birth rate globally, including here in Canada. (Teresa Crawford/The Associated Press)

The COVID-19 pandemic will likely lower Canada’s already declining birth rate, and that has implications for everything from how competitive it will be for a child to get a spot on a soccer team to how healthy the Canada Pension Plan will be in 2050, economists say.

The global health crisis is having an impact on fertility intentions, which are the decisions people make about having a child or adding to their family and when to do so, said Nora Spinks, CEO of the Vanier Institute for the Family, a charitable research and education institute based in Ottawa.

“Stability, security, predictability all impact that decision. So [whether] there’s stability in your home life, in your relationship. If there’s stability in the economy, in your employment situation, your income specifically. If there’s stability and predictability in the community in which you live,” she said.

“When it comes to the impact of COVID-19 on fertility intentions, what we’re seeing all over the world is that people are choosing, in large part, to delay, defer or just not have a child or additional children at this time.”

An editorial about the expected fertility impacts of the crisis published in the journal Science last week said that, “given the irreversible nature of childbearing and the substantial costs associated with child-rearing, unemployment and lost income will necessarily reduce fertility.”

It cited declines in fertility that came after the 2008 recession, particularly in countries that had the strongest economic downturns.

“Throughout history, spikes in mortality owing to events such as wars, famines, and pandemics were followed by changes in fertility, resulting in fewer births in the short term and by recuperation in subsequent years.”

Since the fastest-growing group of mothers today is those over 30 with shorter fertility windows, a potential recuperation in the number of births is less likely than after past birth-rate-dampening events such as the two world wars, Spinks said. Even if a vaccine is developed relatively soon and the pandemic is over in around a year, each passing year in an older mother’s fertility window can mean the difference between having a child or not.

Effects from kindergarten to careers 

A forecast published in June by the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think-tank, said there could be 500,000 fewer babies born in the U.S. as a result of the pandemic.

Because Canada has a robust health-care system and more supports than the U.S., such as parental leave, economists are not predicting an equivalent drop in Canada’s birth rate. But a decline of any kind will have lasting impacts.

“What it means for families and for policy-makers and for communities is that if we see a drop in pregnancy in 2020, we’ll see a drop in demand for child care in 2023 to 2024, a drop in kindergarten in 2025 and a drop in adolescents available for summer jobs and part-time work by 2030,” said Spinks.

That becomes even more of a problem down the road when that cohort needs to provide enough income tax revenue to support the growing portion of elderly Canadians, said Elisabeth Gugl, an associate professor at the University of Victoria specializing in family economics.

If fewer babies are born in 2021 as a result of the pandemic, there will be fewer adults to generate the income tax revenues required to support our aging population as they draw on the Canada Pension Plan and use hospital services. (KieferPix/Shutterstock )

“From an economics perspective, one large impact that the birth rate has is how we organize our public pension system,” she said. “We have actually quite a lot of pay-as-you-go social safety nets where we need people to pay in as we also, on the other hand, pay out benefits.”

When there’s a larger, older population drawing on the Canada Pension Plan, the smaller working population would have to pay more per person in order to provide the same benefits, said Gugl.

The only other way to rectify the issue is through immigration, she said, but that, too, has been disrupted by the pandemic.

Paradoxically, for those whose personal situations feel stable despite the pandemic, it might be a good time to have a baby, strategically speaking, said Gugl.

“You could think about the situation where your child is actually born into a smaller cohort. And so that would then perhaps increase the likelihood that the child could find employment later on.”

Same goes for landing a spot on a rep soccer team or a coveted internship.

Fear around seeking medical care

Some people have chosen to delay pregnancy because of the perceived risks of accessing medical care during the pandemic, said Dr. Yolanda Kirkham, assistant professor at the University of Toronto and obstetrician at Unity Health in Toronto, which includes St. Joseph’s Health Centre. 

“Some of my gynecology patients have delayed having children. Or because they’ve delayed their wedding. They’ve also delayed having children because of the known increases in medical visits they would have to have.”

Kirkham said she believes uncertainty about employment and finances has also affected people’s baby-making plans.

“The other thing is that fertility clinics were also shut down for a couple of months, so those who were accessing care for fertility issues weren’t having egg retrievals or weren’t having in vitro fertilization.”

Although these are anecdotal observations that can’t yet be quantified, Kirkham said the true impact may be better observed next year in July and August, the months when the most babies are typically born in Canada, according to data tracked by Statistics Canada.

Dr. Yolanda Kirkham, an obstetrician at St. Joseph’s Health Centre in Toronto, says the pandemic’s effects on the birth rate might be more apparent in the summer of 2021, during the months when the number of births is usually the highest. (Submitted by Dr. Yolanda Kirkham)

Dr. Jon Barrett, an obstetrician and chief of maternal-fetal medicine at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, said he’s also observed that patient “volumes are a little bit down, anecdotally.”

Preterm births down

That said, there is one potential area where the pandemic could be making babies’ entry into the world less bumpy, he said, pointing to observations doctors have made in Calgary, where preterm births have dropped dramatically.

The same trend has been observed in Ireland, Denmark and Australia, and Calgary physicians will now join an international effort to study the phenomenon.

Three possible explanations have been proposed: physical distancing may have cut the rate of infections that can bring on preterm labour; air pollution, which is also linked to preterm birth, is down; and working from home has removed the toll of commuting for many pregnant women.

Although some initially speculated there could be a baby boom resulting from couples being stuck inside together with nothing to do but get romantic, economist Lindsay Tedds, herself a mother of a six-year-old girl, said the pandemic hasn’t exactly been “conducive to canoodling.”

The burden on parents caused by school and daycare closures could affect some of their decisions on whether to have more children. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

The associate professor and scientific director for fiscal and economic policy at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy said it seems unlikely people who have been parenting through the pandemic will be enthusiastic about expanding their families.

“We are at the end of our ropes. The last thing we want to do is have another kid through this pandemic,” said Tedds. 

“Whether or not we’ll see an increase in first-time parents, because they were already in a household together and they used that time to have kids, that’s possible.”

Tedds said she’s more inclined to believe the predictions from some other countries that parents will be less likely to have additional children because of the pandemic.

“Probably for a few years we’re going to see that downturn.”

Careers disrupted

She said dramatic events in the news can have different impacts on the birth rate.

“After [the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks] we saw an increase in births, particularly in New York state,” she said. “It was a kind of event that made people really think of the value of human life and what they wanted out of life.”

But Tedds said she expects the pandemic will have the opposite effect.

“People without kids are going to be seeing the risks that parents have faced with schools closing and daycares not available, and having to walk away from careers and jobs because there’s no child care, and [conclude] that we’re still living in a society where women still take on more of the parental duties.”

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