Don't Expect a Coronavirus Baby Boom
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
This pandemic is unlikely to lead to many bundles of joy.
By Fiona Zublin
In the wake of every natural disaster or world-shaking event that causes people to hole up at home together, there follows a wave of tee-heeing about the explosion of births nine months later.
The isolation required by the coronavirus crisis is no exception. After all, more than 1.5 billion people across the globe have been told to go on varying levels of lockdown, confined to their houses with less than usual to do and reduced access to contraception. Everyone’s anxious and needs both an outlet for that anxiety and something to fill the hours. Still, in a survey conducted mid-March of the British public:
Only 3 percent said sex was the activity they’d most likely engage in under lockdown.
To put that in perspective: About 1 in 3 people responding to the YouGov survey said they’d be watching TV, making that the most popular activity. Twice as many people said they’d be gardening as those who said they’d be having sex. Of course, watching TV or gardening can both be done with family around, which can’t be said for sex.
While the statistical evidence for baby booms after blizzards or blackouts is mixed, the current situation is completely different. “The combination of a worldwide health crisis with a global recession in contemporary society is such an unprecedented mixture of events that consequences are hardly predictable,” says Dr. Chiara Ludovica Comolli, a researcher who specializes in the effects of the Great Recession on fertility. While it’s true that both recessions and pandemics cause people to purposefully postpone parenthood, the global uncertainty sparked by the coronavirus could trigger even deeper soul-searching among potential moms and dads. “We can expect that people will be less willing to have a child in a world in which these negative events happen,” Comolli says. “The argument could be similar to that made about climate change or terrorist attacks: Why have children in a world that is more dangerous than it used to be?”
Although most of those killed by the virus are expected to be over childbearing age, explains Dr. Peter Richmond, an academic whose work includes statistical analyses on birthrates, COVID-19 is also thought to prey on pregnant women specifically. It’s logical, therefore, that women might postpone getting pregnant — or that the birthrate could be depressed by the deaths of pregnant women due to coronavirus, though Richmond says such deaths will likely get “lost in the overall noise in the data.”
But in the words of J. Richard Udry — whose landmark study on the supposed spike in births nine months after the 1965 New York blackout found that no such spike actually existed: “Let us not imagine that a simple statistical analysis such as this will lay to rest the myth of blackout babies.” Even now, articles speculating on a mini “Generation C” abound, probably written by people who aren’t penned in with their partner as well as kids whose schools are out for months, if not the rest of the year.
“If there’s a baby boom in nine months, it’ll consist entirely of firstborn children,” quipped one tweet, reflecting the frustration of parents who already have children trapped at home with them, demanding far more attention than usual and impeding their caretakers’ ability to work, relax or engage in any kind of private leisure activity.
Still, even long-lasting disasters have in the past led to a real spike in birthrates. Just not for everybody. A 2017 study of the effects of Hurricane Katrina found that not only did it depress the birthrate in Louisiana by 30 percent one year after the disaster, it also changed the racial makeup of New Orleans. But five years after the disaster, the birthrate for Black moms had fallen by 4 percent while the fertility rate of white women had risen 5 percent, a factor expected to reduce the city’s Black population even further as years progress.
How the impact of coronavirus on fertility could change the makeup of the human race is a question for future statisticians. But it’s unlikely to be an incentive to get pregnant, especially given that the world’s birthrates are already experiencing a dramatic decline. That, says Comolli, “makes this moment an historically unique case, and arguably does not permit [us] to easily disentangle recent events from long-lasting trends.”
While a full picture of the data won’t be available for years, one other snapshot may help with our predictions. In Xi’an, China, couples coming out of quarantine have lodged a record number of requests to get divorced. And it may not take weeks to take hold: Page Six reports that just days after New York City’s lockdown, elite divorce lawyers began seeing a spike in calls from couples who couldn’t stand to be around each other any longer.