Baby boom in the time of Covid-19: Myth or fact?

While it is hard to predict the magnitude of the baby boom, the expected increase in births will be positive from the demographic perspective, given the country’s faster-than-expected population growth slowdown. — Bernama pic
While it is hard to predict the magnitude of the baby boom, the expected increase in births will be positive from the demographic perspective, given the country’s faster-than-expected population growth slowdown. — Bernama pic

KUALA LUMPUR, April 14 — As Malaysia enters the third phase of the movement control order (MCO) that will last until April 28, aimed at curbing the Covid-19 infection rate, talks on the possibly that it could lead to a baby boom is rife. 

Malaysia has been in a partial lockdown since March 18, and the expectation that it would lead to a population increase is based on the mere idea that families and couples are spending more time together now than before.

The idea is certainly welcomed in Ukraine, where the government is actively encouraging its people to have babies.

Reports have quoted President Volodymyr Zelenskiy urging Ukrainians to “stay at home, read books, watch movies.

“As for young people... We have one crisis, but no one has cancelled the demographic crisis in Ukraine. I think the time has come to fight this problem too,” he said.

The country’s population has declined to 37.3 million due to migrations and low birth rates from 52 million post-independence in 1991.

A yay, but...

Prof Yeah Kim Leng of Sunway University Business School said a baby boom is a “yay” as a surge in birth rates means more business for relevant service providers and facilities such as hospitals, clinics and maternity homes that provide pre-natal and post-partum healthcare.

“Retail trade and industries catering to both mother and baby-care needs such as baby food, clothing and accessories are expected to experience a demand surge if the MCO does result in increased reproduction, given Malaysia’s fast declining fertility rates and slower population increase.

“The higher births will be welcomed,” he told Bernama.

The Department of Statistics estimated Malaysia’s population in 2019 to be at 32.6 million --  29.4 million Malaysians and 3.2 million non-citizens -- a slight increase from 32.4 million in 2018.

Yeah noted that those who are financially secure should be able to make a vital contribution to the economy by maintaining or boosting their spending, including increasing their family size or having children earlier in life. 

While it is hard to predict the magnitude of the baby boom, the expected increase in births will be positive from the demographic perspective, given the country’s faster-than-expected population growth slowdown, he said.

The annual population growth rate decreased to 0.6 per cent in 2019 compared with 1.1 per cent in 2018, attributed to decreasing fertility rates and net international migration.

However, the post-crisis reforms would be needed for the B40 group; focusing on boosting their income growth and uplifting the group that is most likely to experience higher birth rates, he opined.

Yeah suggested a cut-back in entertainment, dining out and household items that will somewhat offset the reduction in salaries and incomes.

“People tend to save more during uncertain times. This opportunity to boost savings is particularly helpful to those with inadequate savings for retirement and needs such as home ownership, education and skills upgrading as well as the capital for business ventures.

“Given that lower income households tend to have larger families, the country’s unequal income distribution could be further skewed by the anticipated birth increase. 

“Hence, the unintended negative consequences include increased financial vulnerabilities of low-income households and the associated social problems in the future such as inadequate retirement savings,” he said. 

Debatable

Meanwhile, Ali Salman, chief executive officer of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs said the assumption of a baby boom early next year is debatable. 

“As time passes on in the lockdown, it also increases worries for the financial future of a large segment of population, which will affect their decision.

“While we can expect a slight increase in the birth rate possibly in the rural areas, overall, I expect it to be within a normal range,” he said.

In its 2019 financial performance briefing, Bank Negara Malaysia said that the economic developments in 2020 have taken a dramatic turn; from an initial projection of a modest recovery and stabilisation to a baseline economic growth projection of between -2.0 to 0.5 per cent, before recovering in 2021.

The central bank also projected that the country’s unemployment rate is expected to shoot up to four per cent this year from 3.3 per cent in 2019 with a weak labour market due to the pandemic.

“Job losses, pay cuts and reduced incomes could deter affected individuals from having more children although the MCO could also result in families deciding to have kids earlier than planned,” said Yeah. 

Job creation in Malaysia would depend on the pace of recovery as well as on new investments. 

“The ability to attract foreign direct investments motivated by global supply chain disruptions during the on-going pandemic crisis will boost job growth in the country,” he said.

Debunking the myth

Assoc Prof Dr Anasuya Jegathevi Jegathesan, psychology programme director at Taylor University’s School of Liberal Arts and Sciences said that the baby boom is unlikely to happen.

“It’s a myth. History has taught us that after major crises where people were stuck at home, there was no baby boom after that. That notion or myth comes about because it sounds alluring.

“But even though it’s a myth, it is actually the length of this coronavirus pandemic (lock-down) and the availability of condoms that may actually turn the myth into reality,” she cautioned.

There has been a shortage in condom supplies as factories have had to suspend their operations in adherence to the MCO. 

For instance, Malaysia’s Karex Bhd, which produces one in every five condoms globally, has not produced any since March 18 when the MCO was imposed. 

So, contraceptives are the real issue here as it depends on the availability of condoms, she said, pointing out that natural contraception like exiting before ejaculation is not as effective.

“So, if you really don’t want to have (a baby) then don’t. If you’re going to take your chances then you’re going to risk it because removing yourself from the situation doesn’t mean that there is no leakage before that.

“It is in such circumstances that baby boom happens,” she said.

She also shared Yeah’s concern that a spike in birth rates, especially in the middle-class population, is not encouraged as it might put them in financial distress.

In reality, Anasuya said couples are found to fight more often than anything else during a lock-down.

“When that happens, then sex may no longer be as exciting,” she explained.

A striking example would be China, which saw a spike in divorce cases after the lock-down was imposed following the Covid-19 pandemic. — Bernama

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