First came the run on face masks, disinfectant wipes, toilet paper, even bottled water, out of fear, perhaps, that the nation’s faucets might break from the strain of all that extra hand-washing.
But now — with sports seasons suspended and concerts and theaters closing their doors due to the coronavirus — the world as we knew it is completely shuttered. Given the American proclivity for panic-shopping during times of disaster, ransacking stores until the shelves are naked, what will be the next commodity to disappear?
Maybe, in a month or two, pregnancy testing kits.
History, headlines, and conventional wisdom have suggested that during times of natural disasters, and in the absence of other distractions, people turn to each other and, let’s just say, frolic productively.
To midwife Ann Whitman, it’s a clear case of storm leads to stork. “It’s anything that causes people to stay home more," said Whitman, who runs Home Midwifery Services in Reading and has delivered babies for 29 years. "Remember we had all that snow three or four years ago?” Her business surged nine months later. “People tend to take comfort by getting close.”
Still, epidemiological research on the topic is not conclusive, and for years scientists and others have debated whether there really is a demonstrable correlation between natural disasters and baby boomlets. Many dismiss it as urban legend, or myth.
One of the first studies on the subject concerned the Great Blackout of Nov. 9, 1965, when the electricity went out in New York City. Precisely nine months later, on Aug. 10, 1966, the New York Times carried a banner headline announcing: “BIRTHS UP 9 MONTHS AFTER THE BLACKOUT.” But a landmark study in 1970 failed to back it up when demographer J. Richard Udry of the University of North Carolina found the number of births was actually not remarkable for 1966 when compared to the previous five years.
He concluded, unpoetically: “It is evidently pleasing to many people to fantasize that when people are trapped by some immobilizing event which deprives them of their usual activities, most will turn to copulation.”
That didn’t put an end to the debate over whether catastrophes drive people together and influence birthrates. More studies followed, using larger sample sizes. In 2005, researchers at the University of Oklahoma looked at birth patterns in the aftermath of the 1995 Oklahoma City terrorist bombing and found an uptick in births nine months later in Oklahoma County that was “interpretable, consistent and significant.”
A possible reason, the study suggested, was that parents came to see that life was more fragile than before and responded by having more children.
Since then, others have observed that disastrous events that bring people together do seem to correlate with a spike in births. In 1990, the year after Hurricane Hugo struck South Carolina, births jumped in all 24 counties declared disaster areas compared with the other 22 counties in the state, according to a 2002 study published in The Journal of Family Psychology. (But divorce rates did, too.) There were reports of a spike in “hurricane babies” in New York and New Jersey nine months after Hurricane Sandy caused widespread power outages in October 2012. Hospitals in Kissimmee, Florida reported a 5 percent increase in births after Hurricane Irma in 2017.
Though this new virus is still young, in virology terms, researchers are already weighing in on whether a crop of coronavirus babies is just around the corner.
Just this week, on March 11, Lyman Stone, a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies and former International Economist at the US Department of Agriculture published a lengthy piece for the Institute for Family Studies blog called “Will the Coronavirus Spike Births?”
His answer to this question is: very likely, with caveats. He writes that high mortality events such as influenza outbreaks, major hurricanes, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and an earthquake in Japan, were seen to lead to fewer conceptions and thus large decreases in births nine months later.
But then – starting at around 10 or 11 months after an epidemic, fertility rebounds and birth rates begin to recover, he writes. The rebound could be significant depending on how much the infection has spread, as well as the mortality rate: “COVID could boost births over four years after the epidemic runs its course by anywhere from 0.3% to 40%,” according to Stone. (He notes that fear and trauma, “this sense of existential insecurity,” could play a role in motivating higher fertility.)
The state of the economy, he adds, could also play a role in the number of births.
“If Americans take proactive measures to stay home together more and avoid going out, and in doing so also succeed in preventing COVID from spreading widely, and if policymakers take measures to keep the economy humming,” he wrote, “then U.S. birth rates could actually rise slightly in the next year as a result of COVID.”
This seems a reasonable assumption to Lauren A. Wise, a professor of epidemiology at Boston University School of Public Health. “If the couples are stuck at home and not ill from infection, it is plausible that they would engage in more regular intercourse and that we would see a spike in the birth rates in 39-40 weeks from now,” she said.
To put it psychological terms, “we’re all in foxholes at this point that may push us towards intimacy,” said Alexander Halavais, an associate professor at Arizona State University’s School of Social and Behavioral Sciences. Especially when there are no kids in the family to begin with.
“Not to get too personal,” he laughed, “but I have two kids at home and nothing is happening.”
Linda Matchan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org