Two worldviews clash again
“Covid pandemic delivers falling birth rates in heart of Europe” runs the headline in today’s Financial Times. How much difference a word makes. In the strange politics of this past year, whether you ascribe a negative effect to the “pandemic” or “lockdowns” has become a sign of your position on the policy, a whole worldview. If the headline was “Lockdowns deliver falling birth rates,” what a different atmosphere that story would have.
The article goes through the shocking birth statistics coming out of European countries (reported on UnHerd three days ago) showing a dramatic drop in pregnancies from the beginning of the lockdowns. It begins: “It is not just that many more people are dying as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. In several countries, considerably fewer are being born.”
And yet the uncertainty whether to ascribe the effects to lockdowns or the pandemic is observable throughout the article. The stand-first of the digital edition (no doubt written by someone other than the authors) refers to “sharp declines in babies being born 9 months or more on from lockdowns in France, Italy and Spain,” and the authors conclude in the article itself that the 23% drop in Spain’s fertility “highlights the likely impact of Spain’s harsh 2020 lockdown, which was at its toughest in March and April, nine months before the precipitous fall in births.”
Scandinavian and Northern European countries seem to be much less badly affected by the plummeting birth rate. Sweden recorded a 6.4% drop for January, and the Netherlands and Finland both recorded slight increases for the month.
“Covid-19 did not hit the Nordic nations and parts of northern Europe as hard as some other countries, particularly early on, which may explain why birth rates were higher there at the start of this year,” the authors conclude.
But if you take the numbers of Covid-19 deaths per million recorded for the period when January-born babies would have been conceived (early April to early May 2020), Sweden was actually worse-hit than Italy during that period and roughly parallel with France and Spain. Famously, however, they were not in a lockdown.
The Netherlands’ lockdown at that stage was less stringent than the Mediterranean countries, according to OurWorldInData’s “Stringency Index”, but they were also recording fewer Covid deaths. As for Finland, it is bottom of both the stringency index and the deaths per million charts for the countries mentioned (including Sweden) so it’s hard to disaggregate.
We should not be surprised to see a pandemic have an impact on birth rates. The Spanish Flu led to a sharp drop in birth rates, and high mortality events like famines, earthquakes and heatwaves typically have a similar impact. Normally they bounce back.
But when the effect is clearly a combination of “the pandemic” and “lockdowns” it tells you a lot about a publication which one they choose to lead with.