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Europe's 'baby drought' reflects concerns

By ZHAO RUINAN | CHINA DAILY | Updated: 2021-02-18 07:12

A woman pushing a baby stroller walks on a street during stricter restrictions due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Sheffield, Britain on Oct 21, 2020. [Photo/Agencies]

Some had anticipated Europe's lockdowns imposed on and off since last March would lead to a baby boom as couples could spend more time together. But, far from a boom, recent data indicates European countries are experiencing a vast baby drought.

The number of births in Italy in December, nine months after the country went into Europe's first lockdown, plunged by 21.6 percent compared with the same month in the year before, according to figures from a sample of 15 Italian cities released in early February by statistics agency ISTAT.

In France, numbers gathered by the national statistics institute Insee revealed a 2 percent decline in births in 2020 compared with 2019.Coupled with the number of deaths caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, France's population growth has fallen to its lowest level since World War II.

Even in a region with a long trend of birthrate decline, the decreases in the latest statistics in Europe were deep, experts say. They believe that economic fears and the general uncertainty brought on by the pandemic are to blame.

"France has the highest fertility rate in Europe (in recent years), but today's figure shows that the pandemic has further reduced people's desire to have children in Europe," said Li Jianmin, a professor of demographics at the Institute of Population and Development at Nankai University in Tianjin.

The eurozone economy contracted 6.8 percent in 2020, the EU's statistics agency Eurostat said in a report released in February. Overall, unemployment-at 16 million across the EU-is up by 2 million compared with the previous year.

Economic pressure

"Raising a child bears economic responsibility," Li said. "If young couples are uncertain about jobs and incomes, they may choose not to have children until their future is secured. Even if they do have plans to have kids, they may rather postpone it due to the pandemic."

His argument is backed up by a recent study published by Demographic Research on the impact of COVID-19 on fertility plans in five European countries. More than 70 percent of respondents confirmed that they had either postponed or fully abandoned their plans to have children due to the pandemic.

Zhao Junjie, a researcher in European studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the outbreak, as well as the response, also imposed unprecedented negative social and psychological effects on people, including the fear of infection and its consequences.

"Fears may grow when people considering delivering children in hospitals treating COVID-19 patients. Couples hence might be thinking twice about having a child amid the pandemic," Zhao said.

During the lockdowns, European countries have also shut down fertility clinics and other medically assisted fertility facilities.

"A structural decline to the birthrate will depend on the level of scarring in the labor market and the pace of recovery," Zhao said. "When life gets back to normal and people have a job again, it's possible we may see a catch-up in future."

But a sluggish rollout of vaccines in most of Europe, the threat of new variants of the coronavirus and the possibility of weeks or months of continued restrictions could portend a bumpy recovery, Zhao said.

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