Birth rates dropped even more after the COVID-19 pandemic hit

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But, it’s not the time to worry about numbers.

Concentrating on the birth rate misses the point, writes Alanna Armitage today, during the World Population Day. What does matter, is building a place, where people want to stay, live and create a family.

The COVID-19 pandemic, might have at least temporarily, sped up the decline of the global birth rates. Statistics at the end of 2020 – 9 months after the beginning of the first rounds of quarantine – show a significant drop in the number new births in European countries.

News related to a ‘boom of COVID-19 babies spurred anxiety in many countries around the world. The pandemic – and its impact on people’s reproductive choices – really hit home, when the birthrate levels were critically low in all of Europe. In Eastern Europe, massive emigration has amplified the severity of the situation: people aren’t just having less children, but they are leaving their countries in large groups in order to find better economic opportunities elsewhere. As a result, populations have decreased. Since 1990, countries like Bulgaria or Lithuania, to mention a few, have lost a quarter of their population.

We do not know whether the level of birthrates will return to normal after the pandemic. Historically, major crises like this one have contributed to a decline in birthrates, but they have generally been followed by a rise in numbers. Data collected by Tomas Sobotka, a demographic expert, show that the birthrates in Europe are actually showing a slight rise in the past couple of months. Whether or not this trend will continue at the same pace, depends on how stable the social and economic impact of the pandemic will be.

However, focusing on birthrates misses the main point. Instead of being concerned about the ups and downs of our population, it is time we accept that it’s highly probable that fertility rates will continue to remain low. And, it’s also time to accept what needs to be done in order to prepare our economies and our societies for this inevitable demographic future.

This is not and will not be an easy change. Universal knowledge shows that high levels of birthrate and population ageing are desirable for countries and societies, as they are signs of national wealth and strength. We are used to thinking this way. And it is true that economies might shrink, in absolute terms, when the population drops.

But this doesn’t mean that people will become poorer. Prosperity per capita might increase while the working force decreases, wages might go up while automation can increase productivity. Smaller populations are also good for the environment, because less people means less consumption, less pressure onto the little natural resources we have and ultimately less waste and pollution too.

The transition from a population rise to a population decline is challenging, and many countries are witnessing it, especially those of Eastern Europe. Societies are aging at a rapid pace; there’s an ever lower number of people at a working age, able to secure the livelihood of an ever growing number of elderly citizens; and rural areas are being faced with depopulation, as people move toward larger cities or abroad, in order to find better living conditions. The social systems are being put under pressure and the cost of keeping up the infrastructure and services in less populated regions, is higher.

However, these challenges are manageable. That’s not all, as they pave the way for new opportunities for innovations that could catapult countries toward a more advanced future. Places like Kluzh in Romania or Belgrade in Serbia are coming up as prominent centers of different technological industries, bringing in local talent as well as ones from all over the world.

In all of Eastern Europe, emigrants have returned home because of the pandemic, bringing with them qualifications, knowledge and valuable contacts. Governments are experimenting with: different ways to take advantage of the contribution that could be provided by ex-patriots and ways to integrate them within society and the economy; they are also experimenting with opening up job markets and broad-spectrum public life to women, minorities and other marginalized groups, by using resources that haven’t been fully utilized yet. In fact, emigration has also become a focal topic of discussion – a topic, which for the longest time has been taboo in most of Eastern Europe. This whole mechanism contributes to making countries more qualified to treat demographic challenges.

Does this mean that birthrates aren’t important at all? Not entirely. They are important because they are witnesses of a history of negated reproduction rights. People in all of Europe in general say they would like to have two children, but many end up having one or none at all. This gap between the desired birth rate and the actual numbers taking place in the real world, is what governments should be focusing on – not with the aim of increasing their populations but rather, to help people put to life their reproductive rights, so that they can have the number of kids they actually want.

This requires taking away many present barriers that people are faced with to this day, when trying to create a family like: economic insecurities, high cost of shelter, an infertility rate always on the rise, the lack of childcare and the expectation that women make compromises in their careers and only carry the burden of taking care of their families.

If we are able to create societies that are friendlier to families, with more equal opportunities for women and men, then this can result in a higher number of births, because people will feel safer and more secure to have a family and give birth to the number of children they actually want. However, this is still no guarantee, as is witnessed by family-friendly Scandinavia, which is in fact, seeing a decline in birthrates. Plus, this shouldn’t be what motivates the push toward friendlier family policies either. The necessary measures that are needed, to make sure that people have the number of children they actually want, should carry within them great value, they should improve people’s living standards and they should make sure countries move forward and progress.

At the UNFPA, the United Nations Fund for Populations, we understand the importance that demographic changes have in the embodiment of a country’s future. We support countries in strengthening their demographic resistances and in making the best use of the opportunities they already possess.

The sooner we accept that the solution of demographic problems in Europe doesn’t lie with the rise in birthrates, the sooner we will be able to concentrate on what really matters, in terms of addressing the perceived crisis of the population in our continent: our ability to build places, where people actually want to stay in, live in and create a family.

Opinions expressed in this article solely represent the views of the author. 

Alanna Armitage is a Director of the Regional Office at the UNFPA for Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

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