Of the many questions this extreme situation raises, one will have to wait several months for an answer: Should we expect a coronavirus baby boom?
A surprising amount of research has been done on the subject of post-disaster fertility. The headline hypothesis is fairly straightforward: With other activity curtailed, couples have more opportunity — and perhaps more desire — for intimacy. Nine months later, the babies show up.
This theory was behind a series of articles published by the New York Times in the aftermath of the great New York City blackout of November 1965. When several local hospitals registered an increase in births starting in August 1966, the Times attributed the spike to how the infants’ parents kept busy when the lights went out.
Sociologist J. Richard Udry wanted to test the assumption for himself, and in 1970 published his findings. As it turned out, upon reviewing the citywide data, Udry found no statistically significant increase or decrease in the number of conceptions during the blackout. Yet ever since, each new disaster seems to have brought reports of a new surge in births.
If lack of alternative entertainment doesn’t spur a covid-19 baby boom, might the widespread calls to come together for the sake of our civilization inspire people to start working on the next generation? This “banding together” theory was one of the main explanations in a 2005 study showing an increase in births in the counties surrounding Oklahoma City after the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. When a population unites around a common goal, people feel more ownership of the future. We might therefore expect more baby-making to result from the nationwide campaign against the coronavirus.
On the other hand, it is unlikely Americans will be feeling frisky when suffering from the virus’s symptoms. And even if individuals are not infected, this highly contagious disease has prompted an aversion to any contact closer than an elbow bump. How, then, should we think about the probability of an increase in the intimate contact required for conception?
In 2010, I published a study with co-authors Yingyao Hu and Zhong Zhao that tried to measure whether baby booms result from hurricanes along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States. We had read of anecdotal evidence suggesting births increased in Florida after the devastating 2004 storm season. And we thought this coastal region was the perfect laboratory for examining people’s proclivity for procreation. We had data on many storms over a multi-year period. We studied a diverse set of mothers, from several income levels, education levels, races and marital statuses. This area also experienced storms at different levels of severity — tropical storm watches, tropical storm warnings, hurricane watches and hurricane warnings — lasting for different durations. In short, it was an ideal data set.
Our research yielded two different, but intuitive, results. For low-level storm advisories such as tropical storm watches, we measured a positive and statistically significant effect on births nine months later. An extra 24 hours of tropical storm watch advisory resulted in a 2 percent increase in births. This is evidence of the old New York City blackout hypothesis: When the lights go out, stores are closed and TVs are off, we make more babies.
On the flip side, we also found that an extra 24 hours of the most severe advisory — hurricane warning — resulted in a 2 percent decline in births. You can’t make babies if you’re running for your life. As catastrophic advisories went from less severe to more severe, the effect of births went from positive to negative. However, even at both extremes, a 2 percent change in monthly births in the average county is equivalent to only one or two extra (or fewer) births — a change that could easily go unnoticed.
Given all the previous evidence on how different types of catastrophes affect our fertility, it seems likely that we can expect a small increase in births as a result of the coronavirus. For now, most people are home, not suffering from covid-19. We are more focused on community and the preservation of ourselves and others. This is analogous to the low-level storm advisory effect, or the situation examined in the Oklahoma City study. Of course, those infected with the disease are experiencing a more severe catastrophe, analogous to a hurricane warning — so we would expect those couples’ fertility to be lower.
On the whole, it’s unlikely that America will see a coronavirus baby boom — but we could see a baby blip. Nationwide, that 2 percent increase would mean roughly 6,000 extra births per month this winter, depending on how long the shutdown endures.
That’s enough to suggest that people wondering what to do with their extra time at home right now might want to take up knitting. There’s no harm in working on that blanket or those booties. Come December, someone you know might need them.