The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have been widely articulated, with emphasis often placed on the economic impact of the disease that has killed millions around the world and at least 43 souls here at home.
Even with the rapid development of several COVID-19 vaccines, Governments are still struggling in a battle against time. Their populations need to be vaccinated in sufficient numbers to develop herd immunity. At the same time, they must do so quicky as dangerous variants of the viral illness are taking hold in countries that have been too slow in the vaccination process.
The United States, for example, which had been nothing short of schizophrenic in its approach to the pandemic, is now making great progress at the national level with the new, more focused strategies of the Biden/Harris administration.
But as a result of the highly polarized, dysfunctional tactics of the former Trump administration, many Republican-led states have been taking actions that work to undermine the COVID-19 effort and frankly that has exposed the most vulnerable of their citizens to the disease.
There has been an aspect, however, of the pandemic that has found little traction in the news media even though the long-term effects have wide-ranging implications.
For many who believed the COVID-19 lockdowns would have led to more pregnancies and population growth as more couples were forced to spend more time together, have discovered the opposite has occurred.
Recent research from the United States and some parts of Europe have uncovered a startling reality. The fact is that a year after COVID-19 engulfed the world, the US has been hit by the biggest slump in births in a century. It is also being reported that the drop in births has been even sharper in parts of Europe.
“Having seen how bad the pandemic was I am not surprised. But it is still just shocking to see something like this happen in real time.” Those were the words of Philip N. Cohen, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland. His comments also followed analyses from economists at the Brookings Institute in the US, who estimated that American births would fall by between 300 000 to 500 000 babies.
Also of consequence, was a survey of fertility plans in Europe which revealed that about 50 per cent of people in Germany and France, who had planned to have a child in 2020 or 2021, were going to postpone it. In Italy, which has been rocked by COVID-19, of couples of child-bearing age, 37 per cent said they had abandoned the idea of having a child altogether.
It appears the pressures of the pandemic are taking a toll on couples who seem less inclined to enjoy intimate sexual experiences and to have children as a result. A report from the Kinsey Institute at the University of Indiana, found that 40 per cent of people surveyed, regardless of gender or age, reported a decline in their sex life during the pandemic.
Like most issues, we in Barbados are forced to make assumptions about the reality on the ground, simply because of a shocking lack of statistics. There are just too many areas of human activity that are not being captured in timely, accurate, and accessible data.
But why is the issue of declining birth rates during the pandemic of any importance to us in Barbados? If the situation in Barbados replicates what is happening in the United States, then this could spell even greater trouble for the country’s social security system which is already under pressure.
The difficulties that come from an aging population are already greatly documented. Barbadians must simply have more children as our population growth over the years has been trending in the wrong direction.
We already know that an aging population will require greater expenditure particularly in the area of health care. Along with increased health care costs is the matter of an unsustainable pension system. This is a real issue for the administration which will have to confront the matter, despite how controversial it is likely to be.
A rapidly aging population means there are fewer working-age people in the economy. This often leads to a shortage of qualified workers, making it more difficult for businesses to fill in-demand roles.
To compensate for this workforce challenge, Prime Minister Mottley has already made it clear that she is prepared to take on the issue of managed migration. She has indicated that waiting for natural population growth through increased birth rates will not fix the problems that have been created by decades of declining births.