Italy, the Coronavirus Pandemic and Demographic Winter
COMMENTARY: Demographic winter is a slow-moving train wreck. It has been for some time.
Heartbreaking stories have emerged from the coronavirus pandemic in Italy. Hospitals are too full. Doctors are overworked. People die alone. Coffins pile up. The Pope walks through empty Roman streets, praying alone.
The coronavirus has created these scenes. Yet, behind the scenes of the crisis is another one. Slow-moving, largely hidden, yet destructive both physically and socially, a problem people prefer to ignore. I am speaking of demographic winter: the worldwide fertility decline. This problem aggravates the coronavirus crisis.
The coronavirus is especially lethal for the elderly. The death rate (deaths per number of cases) is 15% for people over 80, 8% for people in their 70s, 3% for people in their 60s and less than 1% for people under 50. The countries with the highest number of cases and fatalities per capita are countries with a large percentage of elderly people. For instance, Italy’s fertility rate is now 1.33 children per woman, far below the replacement level of 2.1. As a result, Italy has a rapidly aging population. Almost a quarter (23%) of Italy’s population is now over 65 years of age. In 2019, the median age was 46.3, projected to rise to 51.4 by 2050. An aging population is creating and will continue to create rising costs for both pensions and health care.
But beyond the dollars and cents are the human costs. Low fertility rate means fewer young people to take care of the increasing number of older people. Even if the fear of contagion had not prevented family visits, more and more people have no young relatives to come visit them. Even without coronavirus, for example, Japan has so many childless elderly people who die alone that the culture has developed a special term: “lonely death.” People die in their apartments, alone, sometimes undiscovered for days or more, sometimes much more. The first person to whom the term was applied, evidently, was a man who was discovered three years after his death.
We are so accustomed to hearing about “overpopulation” and “The Population Bomb” that we scarcely consider the opposite problem of underpopulation. Yet the fact is that birth rates in most of the world are well below replacement rates. And the problems are becoming harder to ignore and harder to solve.
Political scientist Nicolas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute stated in a depressing article entitled, Growing Old the Hard Way:
“Left unaddressed, the mounting pressures that population aging would pose on pension outlays, health care expenditures, fiscal discipline, savings levels, manpower availability, and workforce attainment could only have adverse domestic implications for productivity and economic growth in today’s affluent societies.”
These pressures have been pretty much “left unaddressed” during the 15 years since Eberstadt penned those words. Public policy around the globe still emphasizes the need to slow population growth. The problems created by population decline never seem to get the same attention.
You may reply that lower fertility is one of the costs of women’s greater participation in higher education and the professions. Women are choosing delayed and reduced fertility, because they believe they will benefit from it. That is only true up to a point. What kind of “choice” is it, when we women hear all about the benefits of delayed fertility and never hear about the costs?
Did you know that most college educated women end up with fewer children than they originally wanted?* Most people don’t know this. Yet this is the case in pretty much every rich country. The “fertility gap” is highest in Southern European countries, such as Italy and Spain, where the coronavirus just happens to be the most virulent.
There is no world overpopulation crisis. The bigger problem is that we don’t have enough people. We cannot solve this problem overnight. There is nothing we can do today to increase the number of 40 year-olds we have tomorrow. Sure, we could increase immigration. But that is neither a global, nor a long-term solution.
In fact, we know today with absolute certainty the maximum number of 40-year-olds there could possibly be in the world in April 2060. (Demography is predictable that way.) We can’t do anything about that. But we can do something about how many 40 year-olds there will be in January 2061 because we can do something about how many babies we have in January 2021.
The COVID-created enforced “social isolation” could well result in a baby boom. Some “experts” offer you a free abortion as a “solution” to your “unwanted” pregnancy. I offer a different suggestion: Have the baby. Pull yourself together to take care of that baby, even if you didn’t “plan” it. Lots and lots of people who didn’t “plan” their babies will tell you later they don’t regret having them.
We baby boomers were, frankly, idiots on this point. We thought we were so smart, putting off our pregnancies and “planning” our families. We planned ourselves right into the personal heartbreak of infertility and the social crisis of demographic winter.
Of course, we as good Christian citizens must do our best to limit the spread of the coronavirus. But we must also understand the role of demographics in making us more vulnerable to this pandemic. A nation without children has no future, no matter what diseases may emerge.
For the love of God and all mankind, be not afraid! Have the baby! With any luck, and by the grace of God, Italy and all of us, will experience a post-COVID baby boom.
Jennifer Roback Morse, Ph.D., is the author of
She is the founder and president of The Ruth Institute, an international
interfaith coalition to defend the family and build a civilization of love.
*See figures 1-3 of the linked article, which states on page 527, “Highly educated women generally show the largest gap between intended and realized fertility.”