The Impact of Disasters on Birth Rates
By Lucy Wright
From blackout to blizzard babies, when people are stuck at home, speculation of an imminent baby boom begins. So, as expected, government sanctioned lockdown measures have given rise to jokes predicting a coronavirus induced baby boom.
Such jokes are well founded in light of research showing that births can spike nine months after certain disasters, especially those that require people to stay inside. For instance, a paper published in 2008, found that hurricanes and tropical storms are indeed associated with a spike in birth rates nine months later. Researchers have been examining the correlation between crises and birth rates for decades, partly inspired by a number of New York Times articles about “a sharp increase in births” at several large hospitals in 1966, nine months after the Northeast blackout of 1965.
Dr. Helen Bernie, director of Sexual and Reproductive Medicine and assistant professor of urology at Indiana University has pointed to “a silver lining… that spouses and families are having the opportunity to spend more time together that they otherwise would not have had, to connect, to offer support and remember the things most important to us” predicting that by this time next year, maternity wards are likely to fill up.
Yet, in the aftermath of other catastrophes, such as famines, earthquakes and tsunamis, birth rates tend to fall at the nine-month mark, before bouncing back soon after. Data compiled by the Institute for Family Studies suggests that epidemics follow a similar pattern. The SARS outbreak in 2002-03, for example, led to a drop in births in Hong Kong nine months on, followed by a sharp rise in the subsequent two years.
The IFS has argued that illness, quarantine, and death can all have a major impact on conception, pregnancy, and birth, referencing academic literature suggesting a well-established relationship between high-mortality events and future fertility patterns. The evidence suggests that high-mortality events as diverse as famines, earthquakes, heatwaves, and disease all have very predictable effects on reducing births nine months later.
The magnitude of the crisis is particularly significant. In the late 2000s, three researchers investigated the effects of hurricanes on subsequent birthrates, in a paper titled “The fertility effect of catastrophe: U.S. hurricane births.” The study found a small, but statistically significant effect. After low-level warnings, like tropical storm watches the researchers found that every 24 hours a county was under advisory witnessed a 2 percent uptick in births. On the flip side, the most severe hurricane warnings saw a 2 percent decrease.” Thus, it can be concluded that while mild storm advisories have been shown to result in increases to birth rates 9 months later, serious storms tend to reduce birth rates due to personal and systematic economic damages.
Already, we have begun to witness the magnitude to which the coronavirus has compounded the already existing economic factors affecting fertility. In developed economies such as the US, birth rates have been falling since the Great Recession of 2007-08, which cost millions of people their jobs and homes – the foundations for raising a family.
Even after the recession had ended, data showed that, for many young people, stable jobs were hard to find and owning a home was a distant dream. Economic anxieties are often cited as the reason why many young people have fewer children than they would otherwise like to have. In 2018, Morning Consult and the New York Times surveyed young adults who had or expected to have fewer children than they considered ideal: 64 percent cited the expense of child care, 49 percent cited worries about the economy, and 39 percent mentioned a lack of paid family leave.
The economic destruction of the coronavirus crisis has resulted in millions of job losses across the globe, and bleak outlooks predict severe economic depressions. “Many people in childbearing ages were already worried about their futures, and now they may face unemployment as well,” said Jennifer Johnson-Hanks, a sociology professor at the University of California. “That kind of anxiety is not conducive to having a child.”
With many child care facilities currently closed and people unable to rely on extended family for child support, concerns about the future of child care and education may also discourage some people from planning for children in the immediate future,especially for those who already have at least one child and have seen how the pandemic has upended their routines.
Yet, anxieties are not limited to job security and personal finance. As healthcare systems face the pressure of increased demand, many worry about access to natal care. In New York, for instance, where infections have strained hospitals to extremes, some pregnant women have chosen to leave the state for areas less affected by the virus. It is understandable, therefore why some may be concerned about the realities of pregnancy and parturition during a global pandemic. Questions around medical care only add to the uncertainty people are facing when they consider expanding their families.
Thus, while it is possible that social distancing measures could engender small increases in birth rates, it is highly likely that economic slowdowns will overwhelmingly discourage procreation in the short term.