TORONTO — Nine months after the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in North America, births in Quebec and British Columbia fell far below normal levels, statistics show.
December, 2020 saw 3,185 babies born in B.C.; on average, the province has had 3,526 births in December between 2020 and 2019. It had the lowest number of births since January of 2010.
The data implies that about 340 births that would normally have happened in B.C. in December did not, because of the pandemic.
B.C. birth numbers for January – which the province cautions are preliminary – show a similar pattern, with births at 278 below the monthly average.
Quebec is similar: November births were 11 per cent below the average for that month since 2010, and December births were 8 per cent lower. November 2020 had about 500 fewer births than November 2019, and December 2020 had about 400 fewer births than December 2019
University of Victoria economist Elisabeth Gugl blames a range of factors: financial uncertainty, a lack of privacy and free time for couples who already have children, isolation of people who live alone, and fears about what a pregnancy during a global pandemic might be like.
“Certainly at the beginning, I think March would be the month where a lot of people, if they’re thinking about it, would be holding off,” she says.
“When the walk-in clinics closed, there was a lot of uncertainty, in terms of people thinking about what kind of – if I were to have a baby right now, what kind of medical attention would I get? How long is this going to take?”
B.C. and Quebec publish birth statistics far more promptly than other provinces, so it’s hard to tell yet whether something similar happened across Canada – though Gugl says she expects to find that it did.
If the same pattern holds true nationally, Canada as a whole would be about 2,900 births short of a normal December, and 2,300 births short of a normal January.
Couples balancing work with the sudden loss of school or day care simply didn’t have the bandwidth, Gugl says.
“Circumstances might not be conducive to having children. There might not be as much opportunity to have sex in lockdown, with the children around.”
“For those who were able to work remotely, they may have been working around child care issues. That would also take away time that they would otherwise spend with their intimate partner.”
March of last year was the month that COVID started to take hold in British Columbia: cases in the province rose from four on March 4 to 65 on March 28.
(Gugl cautions that there has also been a fall in Canadian birth rates over time, unconnected to the pandemic, so at least a small part of the fall in births may be linked to that.)
The pandemic appears to have broadly reduced sexual activity, as couples living together with children lost privacy and energy, and people living alone went into isolation.
A U.S. survey published in June showed that about half of respondents reported a decline in their sex life related to the pandemic, and another reported that parents of children aged 6-12 were having less sex since the pandemic started.
“It could … be that integrating multiple roles (e.g. parent, educator, etc.) may create stress that lowers desire either for sex or for extended time with one’s partner,” the authors wrote.
Google searches also imply that straight people in general had less sex than normal in the early phases of the pandemic. In both Canada and the United States, searches for the term “birth control” hit a five-year low in the third week of March.
“The way we were supposed to be put into bubbles and keeping social distance could also lower the probability of unplanned pregnancies, because people didn’t really have the chance to hook up,” she says.
It’s hard to tell how much of the pattern is due to pandemic-related abortions, but Gugl says some probably is: the fall months in B.C. also saw a lower-than-normal number of births, though not as dramatically as December.
“It is possible that somebody who got pregnant in January or February, and then the pandemic hit, and they are already thinking: ‘Things are not looking great. This is not the best time to have a child,’ then we would be seeing in the months before December a drop in the birth rate because more people were inclined to not carry the pregnancy to term,” she says.
Which groups of potential mothers were more likely to postpone having children because of the pandemic? Not surprisingly, it seems to be people that it affected the most harshly.
A U.S. study predicted that “women with less than a college education, as well as Black or African American women, are predicted to have larger declines in fertility.”
A spokesperson for BORN Ontario, that province’s birth database, told CTV that they planned to study the issue as detailed data becomes available over the next few months.
Edited by CTVNews.ca producer Phil Hahn