Coronavirus demography and destiny

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The adage among demographers has long been that “demography is destiny,” in that what can be observed today about human populations provides rich insight into how they will grow, thrive, or wither in times ahead. For example, a high birth rate is indicative of a large working-age population a few decades out, while the converse is equally true. In such instances, demographers seek to highlight how a sense of “destiny” can be inferred from signs as they might unfold.

It is with that forecasting impetus that demographers are beginning to raise questions about the destiny that lies ahead for a post-coronavirus world, and how policy and personal decisions made today will generate ripples decades outwards. On the one hand, a frightening number of coronavirus deaths have occurred and the cases continue to swell around the world. On the other, lockdowns are putting household-forming couples into the confinement where child-bearing activities are advertently or inadvertently likelier.

As far as the death rate of coronavirus goes, international data is painting a nuanced picture of how severe the scourge of death is by age group, income level, geographic location, and so on. Overall, however, the death rate seems to be in the lower single digits, and thus less lethal than many other frightening virus such as Ebola (Bundibugyo strain: 50% death rate, Sudan strain: 70%) or even the 2002 SARS-CoV (<10%).

On the birth rate side, there is some debate as to the likelihood of a post-corona baby boom. UNICEF expressed the worry that South Asian countries would face a new population explosion, with 20 million births in India and 5 million in Pakistan. The Institute for Family Studies, however, has shown from previous disease outbreaks that the near-term birth rate tends to fall on a 9-month forward basis from the seasonal average.

In the 2002 SARS-CoV outbreak, the birth rate in Hong Kong was nearly 20 percent lower than the seasonal average 9 months after the start of the epidemic. For the 2015 Zika virus outbreak in Brazil, it was 30% lower. However, for the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, it was roughly the same as the seasonal average 9 months after the outbreak.

This suggests that there may be an influence of existing family planning and socio-institutional attitudes towards child-bearing. A new study from Italy has surveyed nearly 1,500 Italian women and found that 80% are unlikely to conceive, and nearly a third of those who in fact earlier had intended to conceive changed their minds after the virus’ outbreak. But the Italian fertility rate was already one of the lowest in the world, amounting to 1.32 children at the end of 2019.

Similarly, the Prime Minister of Ukraine had said at the beginning of the lockdown that it could be a wonderful occasion to raise the national fertility rate, which had also been extremely low at 1.37 prior to the lockdown. Such countries may find this, at least in theory, be an opportune moment for raising their fertility rates to the sustainable 2.1 level. However, survey data suggests that women in these countries have perceived the coronavirus epidemic as an unsound environment.

However, Italy and Ukraine had a pre-set demography that was in stark contrast to Pakistan, which has a fertility rate of 3.4 per woman; which is certainly towards the high end in the world and almost comparable to the countries in West Africa that suffered the Ebola virus (Ivory Coast; 4.6, Senegal 4.5 births per woman). It is also higher than neighbouring Bangladesh and India by quite a margin.

This is why the UNICEF prediction of 5 million births in late 2020 may be quite realistic and reflective of the socio-cultural patterns which have led the country to spin out of demographic control already. In the 1951 census, West Pakistan had a population of 33 million. Not even a century later, it has grown eightfold. But its resource endowments have not grown eightfold. In fact, many primary source endowments and their yields have shrunk.

As such, it is in very trying circumstances that 50 lakh new children will be born in late 2020. By then, 70 million daily wage labourers may still be struggling to bounce back economically. The prenatal factors such as maternal malnutrition during early 2020 will also shape the physiognomy of the newborns. So will the lack of access for their mothers to hospital care, which was already low but even more stressed by coronavirus patients. Less food will be on the table and more siblings will need to ration less grain.

A surge of malnourished, underfed, mentally and physically stunted children might be on the horizon. With two months of lockdown already passed, the die has likely already been cast. If demography truly is destiny, then fret we must for the destiny that awaits.

– The writer is the Director for Economics and National Affairs at the Centre for Aerospace and Security Studies (CASS). This article was first published in The Nation newspaper. He can be reached at cass.thinkers@gmail.com.

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