AS LOCKDOWNS FORCED couples to “Netflix and chill” every night, it seemed plausible that covid-19 might lead to a baby boom. Instead, it has caused a bust. The 21 countries that have published data for January—the first full month in which babies conceived during the first wave were due—report, on average, 11% less births per 1,000 people than in January 2020, and 12% less than you would expect based on each country’s fertility trend in 2009-19.
Data are not yet available for poor countries, where most births occur. And rich-world fertility rates may rise soon, as pregnancies that began in the mid-2020 lull in covid-19 cases come to term. But it would take only a 7% drop in global fertility for a year—just over half the decline in the data from January—for the pandemic to have resulted in 10m fewer births. Such a reduction would equal our estimate of excess deaths caused by covid-19 (see Briefing).
There are lots of ways the pandemic could have cut fertility. Birth rates tend to track economic growth. Lockdowns have made dating difficult. And couples may have delayed having children to avoid hospitals or clinics that treat covid-19 patients.
Disentangling these factors’ impact is tricky. Some places, such as Chile and Israel, saw stark declines in fertility; others, like Switzerland and Finland, eked out gains. In general, the worse a country’s covid-19 infection rate was, the more its birth rate fell. The same was true of lockdown stringency and of economic contraction.
However, one measure tracked fertility unusually well: the change in attendance at parks in January-April 2020, as reported by Google. This link is hard to interpret. Rather than park traffic itself raising birth rates, something else must be influencing both park visits and conceptions. Yet once you account for footfall at parks, neither infection rates nor GDP nor other mobility data improve predictions significantly.
One theory is that park visits reflect dating, because parks were the main places people could go during lockdowns. However, only babies conceived within weeks of a first date would appear in January data.
Another explanation is that park traffic measures fear. In places where people were too afraid even to go to parks, or where parks were closed, couples may also have been likely to be too scared to have children. But more data are needed to identify the means by which covid-19 has shrunk future as well as present generations.■
Sources: Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis; Google; humanfertility.org; OECD; Our World in Data; Statista; Trading Economics; World Bank; national statistics; The Economist
This article appeared in the Graphic detail section of the print edition under the headline “Parks and procreation”