You may have heard that Australia, because of COVID-driven unemployment and economic uncertainty, is facing a demographic disaster – an over-heated way of saying our population will drop because fewer babies are being born.
That’s been the situation for a while now, largely because breeding has gone off the boil as a lifestyle choice. For a moment there was a whimsical thought that we’d all start making babies in COVID lockdown because we didn’t have anything else better to do with our time.
In fact, because of COVID-19, the dropping birth-rate will only accelerate – because the people who planned to make babies this year have been dissuaded by the pandemic.
As Brisbane obstetrician Kate Kerridge told The New Daily’s podcast, people are avoiding pregnancy because they worry they can’t afford having a baby in a time of high unemployment – or because they can’t easily access IVF and other fertility services in a timely and low-stress fashion.
The anxiety for women caught short by these circumstances is very real.
But a demographic disaster?
Population growth and decline is tied to the health of the economy – to an extent that will eventually require a re-think.
But for now, in the context of wealthy countries, a baby boom is also seen as a necessity for sustaining and growing the nation’s prosperity. A baby bust works against it.
- Related: Treasurer’s big baby push: Frydenberg encourages reproduction, but no Costello-style baby bonus
The real reckoning for many countries is about 40 years off, when baby-making will fall below the replacement rate – and immigrants will be welcomed as a means of propping up economies.
Immigration is the ready answer for avoiding a demographic disaster right here and now.
There are plenty of babies being born
Meanwhile, in poorer countries, where access to contraception and abortion has been disrupted by the pandemic, millions of women are at risk of having babies they can’t afford.
Our neighbours in Indonesia have been promoting smaller families as a strategy to beat child malnutrition. President Joko Widodo had aimed to half the incidence of child stunting in four years.
Contraception is provided free to poor families and to many newly-marrieds in Indonesia – but this service has been disrupted because of clinics closed down during the pandemic.
According to the country’s according to the National Population and Family Planning Agency, 10 million married couples stopped using contraception in April.
The government responded by allowing mobile services to provide home deliveries of contraceptives and food. They also launched a campaign where health workers drive through neighbourhoods and roof-mounted speakers beseech the locals:
“You can have sex. You can get married. But don’t get pregnant. Dads, please control yourself. You can get married. You can have sex as long as you use contraception.”
India to bear the brunt
India implemented one of the hardest national lockdowns. This led the Foundation for Reproductive Health Services India to calculate, in May, that up to 25 million couples had no access to contraception.
The Ipas Development Foundation estimates that between March and May, about 1.85 million women were unable to gain access to safe abortions.
Marie Stopes International (MSI), a reproductive health service operating in 37 countries, reports that two million fewer women accessed MSI services between January and June compared to the same period last year.
The organisation predicts this will cause 900,000 unintended pregnancies, 1.5 million unsafe abortions and more than 3000 maternal deaths.
The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) predicted in April:
- 47 million women in 114 low- and middle-income countries may not be able to access modern contraceptives and seven million unintended pregnancies are expected to occur if the lockdown carries on for 6 months and there are major disruptions to health services.
- For every 3 months the lockdown continues, up to an additional two million women may be unable to use modern contraceptives.
- Due to the disruption of programs to prevent female genital mutilation in response to COVID-19, two million female genital mutilation cases may occur over the next decade that could have been averted.
- COVID-19 will disrupt efforts to end child marriage, potentially resulting in an additional 13 million child marriages taking place between 2020 and 2030 that could otherwise have been averted.