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OPINION: Women’s’ Month: The probability of a baby boom in South Africa due to the Covid-19 lockdown is highly unlikely - Professor Nancy Stiegler

Author: Nancy Stiegler

We’re in the heart of August - Women’s Month - and there isn’t a more apt time to highlight, just based on the decisions women make about their reproductive role, how it impacts on population growth.

(Published - 6 August 2020)

Although not true for all, in consultation with a partner, it is ultimately dependent on the women to decide whether she will have children, whether she will opt to take contraception and how many children – ideally with a partner – they can raise and care for.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the global population reached the 7 billion mark in 2011, and today, it stands at about 7.7 billion. 

It’s expected to grow to around 8.5 billion in 2030, 9.7 billion in 2050, and 10.9 billion in 2100. 

But here are the facts for sub-Saharan Africa: life expectancy tends to increase, but fertility is still higher than the replacement level (the average number of children born per woman to replace a current population) which means the population’s size grows, and sometimes very rapidly like in Nigeria or the DRC, for instance, where women each have four children on average.

This growth means that developing countries will have to deal with significant numbers of young people who need to be educated and employed. 

If indeed governments provide education, health and employment to these huge young populations, then countries will harness the benefit of growth in an economy which is the result of a change in the age structure of a country’s population (called the demographic dividend).

If not, such an age distribution, with uneducated and unemployed youth, could turn into a real demographic bomb.

South Africa, has a young population - a median age of 27.5 years old country-wide and 21 years old in the Eastern-Cape, for instance - and given a chance to provide it access to education and contraception, can create a scenario where this young population can become a real engine to society.

From a female perspective, women should be educated and empowered to decide whether to have a family. Educating girls is vital for a well-balanced population and society.

In light of this background, I’m often asked: Will we meet the predicted population figures considering the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic? And will there be a baby boom as a result of the pandemic?

A baby boom is indeed generally a natural response to high mortality levels, generally because of wars, physical separation of couples and in populations where birth control is limited. Moreover, for a baby boom to take place, there must be a certain confidence in the future. 

In cases of war - the second world war, for instance - one usually observes a tendency for people to optimistically consider that it is “the last of the last” wars. 

But in the current climate, I doubt that there will be an increase of fertility for the exact opposite reasons. Due to the confinement and the nature of the pandemic, couples are not separated - on the contrary, they’re forced to cohabit. Add to this the fact that the contraceptive rate in South Africa is quite high at 65% prevalence for females of reproductive age. A baby boom will be unlikely unless females are unable to access their contraception because of lockdown. For this reason, it is expected that couples will not have more unwanted pregnancies than usual.

As for the couples not living together (this group is in general exposed to a higher risk of unwanted pregnancies), their fertility should decrease (or be postponed) because they’re not able to see each other as much as they would have under normal circumstances. Also, keep in mind how the pandemic compromises confidence in the future as well as the current economic situation. It doesn’t create a conducive environment in which to consider expanding families.

For South Africans and people around the world, I think that fertility will decrease in the coming months (due to postponement of pregnancies and births), because anxiety and unemployment do not favour fertility. These delayed births will likely occur at the end of this global crisis.

And our general population figures? Will they still be meeting the World Health Organisation’s predicted estimation of population growth for the future in the aftermath of the Coronavirus pandemic?

All we know is that the Coronavirus might have accelerated the deaths of people who would have died in any event due to old-age or chronic disease, but on the other hand, because of confinement and decrease in populations’ movements, deaths due to external causes such as road accidents or violence (except domestic violence) have sometimes also drastically decreased. 

Therefore, in many instances, as history has taught us, mortality may remain stable, with one phenomenon balancing the other. The longer and the faster the virus infects populations, the more people will die, but the impact may not be as severe as one would imagine.

If a vaccine is available soon, then the impact on the global population should not be too significant. But this is seen purely from a scientific and demographic perspective. However, from a human perspective, a life is a life, and when one life is reduced, it always has a human impact.

Professor Nancy Stiegler (PhD) is a demographer and the Chairperson: Statistics and Population Studies Department in the Faculty of Natural Sciences at the University of the Western Cape (UWC).​​​

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