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In Manila, a six-month-old baby wears a face shield to guard against COVID-19. The global spread of the virus has depressed fertility rates as economic uncertainty leads many couples to put off having children.

Aaron Favila/The Associated Press

John Ibbitson is writer at large at The Globe and Mail. Darrell Bricker is CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs. Their book Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline has been published in nine languages.

The COVID-19 pandemic is shifting the shape of population in countries around the world, both in lives lost and in babies not born. We are becoming fewer even faster than before.

More than a year after governments closed borders, shut down businesses and ordered people to stay home, the latest data show significant declines in fertility in some countries – declines that could become permanent. At the other end of life, so many people have died prematurely that life expectancy has gone down in some countries. This pandemic will influence the demographic makeup of countries, including Canada, for years to come.

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When lockdowns first arrived more than a year ago, some commentators snarked that all this enforced intimacy would lead to a baby boom. But as we wrote last July, the very opposite was likely to happen. In times of economic insecurity, couples tend to put off having a child until the situation becomes clearer.

And that is what has happened.

“In time of enormous uncertainty, people are not choosing to have a child,” said Christopher Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at University of Washington in Seattle. Fertility rates have declining for decades in the developed world, and the decline is accelerating in the developing world. “And on top of that, you have this incredible dislocation from COVID-19,” he said in an interview.

Traditionally, the United States had one of the highest total fertility rates of any developed country, although the rate has been steadily declining over the past decade to 1.7 children per woman in 2019, well below the 2.1 level needed to keep a population stable. The decline was attributed to millennial women choosing to have fewer children than their Generation X predecessors.

The pandemic appears to be accelerating that trend. A May 5 report from the Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Health Statistics showed a 4-per-cent reduction in the number of babies born in 2020 from the year before. With the total fertility rate now at 1.6, the United States is half a baby short of what it needs to sustain its population.

While the CDC was not prepared to speculate on the cause of last year’s sharp decline, The Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank, has produced an updated analysis showing a 6-per-cent decline in births in the last quarter of 2020, compared with the prepandemic last quarter of 2019. For Brookings, that confirms earlier estimates that at least 300,000 babies will not be born in the United States as a result of economic insecurity brought on by the pandemic. That’s a city the size of Stockton, Calif., gone.

The Canadian falloff in births might be even more dramatic. In the first quarter of 2021, there were 8,908 births registered in British Columbia – 18 per cent fewer than the year before. Once complete national data are in, the relative decline in births could be greater than the 30,000 or more babies that would be missing if we applied the Brookings projections to this country. (Or the American number could turn out to be much higher.)

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Children take a COVID-19 saliva test at a primary school in Nice, France, this past March.

Eric Gaillard/Reuters

The U.S. and Canada are not alone. France had one of the highest fertility rates in Europe before the pandemic, though it was still below replacement rate. But that country reports a 13-per-cent decline in births between January, 2020, and January, 2021.

Other European countries have also been hard hit. With a fertility rate of only 1.3, according to a study by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the population already shrinking each year, Poland has been pursuing natalist policies to encourage families to have more children. Those policies haven’t worked, and the pandemic has made the situation worse. In 2020, 355,000 children were born in Poland – 20,000 fewer than the previous year. Meanwhile, more people died than in any year since the Second World War. Fewer births and more deaths resulted in a population decline of 115,000 in 2020.

But the big story is China, which through strict measures contained the impact of the virus that originated in Wuhan, making it possible for the country to return to normal activity much earlier than Western countries. Nonetheless, the world’s most populous country witnessed a startling 18-per-cent decline in births between 2019 and 2020.

Population growth is virtually flat, and is expected to start declining within the next year or so, while the fertility rate has plummeted to 1.3, despite the lifting of the draconian one-child policy in 2015.

“The country is walking into a demographic crisis,” wrote Zhou Xin, political economy editor for the South China Morning Post.

“China is getting old at a speed and scale that dwarfs Japan, creating pressure that China’s pension and health care systems are not in good shape to cope with.”

Children in old-style army uniforms visit Beijing's Tiananmen Square during this year's May holidays. China has acknowledged it's having fewer children than it needs to replace its population.

Ng Han Guan/The Associated Press

Some demographers predict that there could be a modest baby boom in many countries, once vaccines are widely available and restrictions are lifted. But any boomlet, if it occurs, is unlikely to fully compensate for the pandemic bust. When a couple decide to defer having a child, for whatever reason, they typically don’t make it up by having more children later.

Even if they wish to, declining fertility can frustrate the effort. One in six Canadian couples who are trying to have a child experience infertility, double the rate in the 1980s. In many cases, a baby delayed becomes a baby never born.

The pandemic may not be suppressing fertility rates everywhere. Women in developing countries, who typically have less autonomy than their counterparts in developed countries, may find themselves in close confinement with their partners and with inadequate access to contraceptives, which could lead to increased pregnancies.

The Guttmacher Institute, a think tank that studies reproductive issues, estimated in one study last year that even a 10-per-cent decline in access to reproductive health services from the pandemic could lead to more than 15 million unwanted pregnancies and more than three million unsafe abortions. But other factors could counter that trend. Economic uncertainty is as much a motivation for holding off on having children in developing countries as it is in developed ones. Sterilization is the most common form of birth control worldwide – 45 per cent of all birth control practised globally relies on female or male sterilization – and not dependent on contraceptives. And travel restrictions may end up keeping people apart rather than forcing them together.

In any case, while statistical data and surveys in wealthy countries are already coming in – one study found that 37 per cent of individuals in Italy who intended to have children before the pandemic had abandoned those plans – and it could take some time before scientists are able to measure the impact, if any, on fertility in poorer countries.

“I would not be at all surprised if we don’t see much for Africa or India,” said Prof. Murray, while stressing the paucity of reliable data at this point. Fertility has been falling dramatically in India – it had reached replacement rate before the pandemic began – while Africa experienced very little in the way of restricted mobility during the pandemic. Latin America, where lockdowns were severe in some countries, could be a different story, he added.

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New Americans take the oath of citizenship at California's Joshua Tree National Park this past May.

David McNew/Getty Images

A decline in fertility is just one way in which the pandemic is suppressing population growth in many developed countries. The other is closed borders. In the last quarter of last year, Australia recorded its first population decline since the First World War, the result of strict border controls imposed as part of its successful effort to combat the pandemic.

Canada granted permanent-resident status to just over 184,000 applicants in 2020, far short of the target of 341,000. Most were already in the country on student or work visas.

And a third, grim factor is at work: the death toll of the disease itself. Researchers predict that life expectancy in the United States has declined by more than a full year as a result of COVID deaths. Racial minorities were particularly affected, with African-American life expectancy suppressed by two years and Latinos by three years, compared with seven-tenths of a year for whites.

Another study, this one for Scientific Reports, found that “over 20.5 million years of life have been lost to COVID-19 globally,” an average of 16 years of life lost for each person struck down by the disease – from a few months or years taken from someone in long-term care to decades for younger victims. Officially, the pandemic is responsible for more than three million deaths – but the real figure could be far higher, since some countries may be under-reporting deaths. This is probable, for example, in India, where the health care system is collapsing in a second wave of infections. Officially, the pandemic is claiming 4,000 lives a day. Some authorities believe the real count is five to 10 times higher.

The decline in fertility, decrease in life expectancy and loss of new arrivals through closed borders will accelerate demographic trends that are already under way. Hungary, whose nativist government discourages immigration, has invested heavily in measures to encourage births – for example, offering a lifetime income-tax waiver to women who have four children – in a bid to reverse its population decline. Instead, that decline is accelerating, in part because of the pandemic, with the births down 5 per cent in the first two months of this year compared with January and February of last year, and deaths up 6.5 per cent.

Temporary foreign workers from Mexico plant strawberries in Mirabel, Que., last May. Canadian agriculture heavily depends on workers from overseas who face new risks in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

By the end of this decade, Canada will depend entirely on immigration for population growth, which is why it is so urgent to make up for immigrants lost to the country last year.

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The federal government plans to welcome 401,000 new permanent residents this year – mostly by converting students, temporary foreign workers and asylum claimants already in the country – 411,000 next year (by which time something like regular international air travel should have resumed) and 421,000 in 2023. We should probably increase those targets by another 30,000 at least, to compensate for babies unborn owing to lockdowns.

But we say that mindful of the tensions that very high levels of immigration can produce, even in a society as diverse and welcoming as Canada. One of the greatest challenges facing political leaders in the wake of the pandemic will be to manage the demographic imperative of maintaining high levels of immigration, while respecting the political imperative of preserving social cohesion.

Fewer people are good for the planet. With one study after another confirming the United Nations population projections are unreasonably high and population decline, not population growth, will mark the last half of this century, the impact on the fight to reduce global warming and protect species at risk can only be positive.

But the economic consequences are severe. In the 1960s, there were seven people of working age for every person who was retired. Today the ratio is three to one. By 2035, it will be two to one. Not only workers and taxes are lost; innovation can suffer when there are fewer young, creative minds.

To those who say Canada must curb its obsession with growth, become less consumer-obsessed, learn to manage with a smaller population, we say: Who is going to pay for your health care and pension when you get old?

Which raises another question: As welcome as it may be to provide parents with increased support for child care, as the Liberal government proposed in its April budget, the plain truth is that 75 per cent of all long-term care for the elderly is provided for free, mostly by family members who are women. Where should the higher priority lie – in giving women the support they need for child care, or reducing the burden on women as caregivers for the elderly?

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Low fertility affects people at every stage of life: the child growing up without siblings; the couple putting off having a baby until they can afford it; the senior trying not to be a burden to their daughter. The phenomenon dominated our society long before a new virus arrived on our shores. That virus has only has accelerated what was happening already – another way in which this pandemic has changed everything in our lives.

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