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Sensemaker: The Covid baby bust

Sensemaker: The Covid baby bust

What just happened

Long stories short

  • At least 44 people died in a crush of mainly ultra-Orthodox Jewish men at the Lag B’Omer festival in Israel.
  • Britain’s Conservatives opened up an 11 point opinion poll lead four days before local elections despite weeks of argument over who paid to refurbish Boris Johnson’s flat.
  • Noel Clarke, the star of Kidulthood, denied accusations by 20 women of bullying, groping and sexual harassment.

Baby bust

Covid hit, restrictions tightened, and everyone was stuck at home with their romantic partners. There was a lot of speculation that a baby boom would follow. It was mostly playful and, it turns out, completely wrong. The US census just recorded America’s second slowest population growth since it began counting in 1790, and China reported its first population decline since the famine that accompanied Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward. Many big countries are headed for a baby bust.

The reasons are straightforward:

  • Covid restrictions paralysed economies and increased unemployment. Birth rates fall when joblessness rises because, as parents like to note, raising children is expensive – and so worth it. Economists expect 206,000 fewer births in the US next year based on its elevated unemployment rate. 
  • Economies are recovering as restrictions are eased, but anxieties remain. Even the experience of transitory unemployment is enough to put people off having children – or having more of them. People become conservative financial planners, their marriages break down, and their health suffers. 
  • They’re also affected by what they see around them. Even if they weren’t directly affected by Covid, European women planned to postpone giving birth or wanted fewer children at the start of the pandemic because of the climate of uncertainty. Restrictions also cut them off from family support and shut childcare centres and schools.

One day, those facilities will re-open and families will be reunited. The question is whether decreased birth rates will stay. It’s true that they’ve been with us for some time. The world’s fertility rate fell by more than 50 per cent in the past 50 years, from 5.1 births per woman in 1964 to 2.4 in 2018, a period that saw women’s empowerment, lower sperm counts, higher miscarriage rates, and more pollution.

Provisional data show Covid accelerated the decline. South Korea, for example, recently reported a fertility rate of 0.84. It was the lowest rate ever recorded among the major economies, which will struggle with fewer babies in the long run:

  • There’ll be fewer workers, consumers, and ideas, so economic growth will be slower. It will be slower just when we need it to be faster.
  • As the proportion of older people in a population grows, the burden on pension and healthcare systems will grow. Workers will need to become more productive.
  • It’s capital spending – better technology, more machines – that will raise their productivity. Luckily, to fund that spending, there’s an enormous glut of savings that grew while the pandemic kept people home and apart.

Some aspects of the bust were not hard to predict once the pandemic hit, but predictions of a Covid baby boom were still hard to resist. Here’s one from 13 months ago by the UK’s minister responsible for maternity services, Nadine Dorries: “I’m just wondering how busy we are going to be, nine months from now.”

In the event Covid restrictions locked down couples with what Ann Berrington, a demography professor at Southampton University, called the “contraceptive effects of additional chores and home schooling”. They also kept single people socially distanced. 

In a survey of 1,559 adults at the start of the pandemic, nearly half of the sample reported a decline in their sex life. Being younger, living alone, and feeling stressed were linked to, among other things, more sexting and online pornography searches. That’s not going to give us more babies. What happens next, though, is another question altogether.

New things technology, science, engineering

Walk on
A spectacular new suspension bridge has opened in northern Portugal, for pedestrians only. Half a kilometre long and up to 175 metres above ground, it’s the longest bridge of its kind in the world and, at least in conventional bridge-functionality terms, connects nowhere to nowhere. It links one scenic overlook in the Arouca Geopark, east of Porto, to another. Arouca, population around 22,000, is the nearest town, but it’s a two-mile walk away. It cost €2.3 million and took three years to build. It costs €12 to walk across. It wobbles. An early user called it an adrenaline rush. It’s a lot of engineering to put in a tranquil place, but maybe walkers are due some of the attention lavished on motorists down the decades. 

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Refugees pushed back
Frontex, the beefed-up EU border agency, is helping the Libyan coast guard locate refugees trying to get to Europe and return them to crowded, dangerous camps in Libya instead. Le Figaro and Der Spiegel claim Frontex planes have flown over refugees’ boats headed for Europe and tipped off Libyan authorities at least 20 times since January last year. In some cases Libyan coast guard vessels then sailed into Malta’s designated search and rescue zone to pick them up and turn them round. The European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2012 that refugees cannot be forcibly returned to Libya because of the risk they face there of torture and death, but Frontex appears be sharing refugee boats’ coordinates with Libyan officials by WhatsApp.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Overburdened youth
Germany’s Constitutional Court says the country’s climate change mitigation plans place too much of a burden on future generations. Angela Merkel put her name to a 2019 law requiring 55 per cent emissions cuts compared with 1990 levels by 2030, which was ambitious by previous German standards. But by failing to clarify goals beyond 2030 the law “violate[s] the freedoms of the complainants, some of whom are still very young”. Complainants include young activists and residents of low-lying Baltic islands. Germany’s biggest carbon problem is that it burns too much coal to compensate for scrapping nuclear power, but at least it has a constitutional court with teeth. 

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Banking the unbanked
Imagine your only source of income was five cent deposits for empty Coke bottles or other pieces of recyclable waste. Roughly two billion people are in this sort of position, and it’s very hard for them to get bank accounts. Ashish Gadnis runs a start-up trying to fix that with blockchain and SMS messages. The software gives each party to each transaction the same receipt. Bottle collectors (for example) can prove they have an income, get a bank account, get credit and eventually, maybe, get out of poverty. They need a phone, but a brick will do and about half the world’s poorest people have one. Tortoise met Gadnis on a speed-dating zoom call for entrepreneurs in search of press. We haven’t used his tech, but he says a million people have. His company, called BanQu, gets paid by brands seeking to do good or burnish their credentials, or both. Which is fine, except that it ignores the root causes of poverty. Wouldn’t it be great if there weren’t so many people dependent on rubbish for an income in the first place?

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Reactionary France
Nearly half of French people believe the armed forces should intervene to restore public safety if necessary, without orders from the government. That is one alarming finding from a Harris poll taken after 24 retired generals and other senior former officers were told they could lose pensions and privileges for signing a letter to President Macron that appeared to threaten a coup to “save” France from Islamists and immigrants. Another poll finding: 73 per cent of respondents agreed with the generals the country was falling apart. 

Speaking of which… Boris Johnson’s personal mobile phone number has been freely available on the net for years, at the bottom of a press release issued when he was Mayor of London.

Thanks for reading, and please share this around. 

Paul Caruana Galizia

Photographs by Getty Images

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