Acton Institute Powerblog

Population bust fueled COVID-19 spread: Study

The onslaught of the coronavirus global pandemic suspended the normal working of the economy, but it proved two less-noted truths: The family affects everything, including the economy; and a rising population saves lives.

A recent study found that the number of deaths caused by COVID-19 would have been lower if society “had maintained the patterns of fertility, nuptiality, marital stability, and household structure that existed in 1976.”

Had population trends held steady, COVID-19 deaths would have been lower as a percentage of society and in absolute numbers, according to researchers at the Demographic Observatory of the San Pablo University (CEU) in Madrid.

A larger, younger population would have lowered the percentage of society that died from the virus. Declining fertility rates mean Spain has 20 million fewer residents under the age of 43, a cohort with a higher coronavirus survival rate, according to the report titled “Coronavirus and Demographics in Spain” (“Coronavirus y Demografía en España”).

Spain’s aging population increases the death rate caused by the virus and leaves fewer young people behind to care for the suffering, find a cure, or keep the gears of the economy turning.

The total number of COVID-19 deaths would also be lower were it not for the population bust, because Spaniards traditionally lived in multigenerational families, where children and grandchildren cared for their elders.

“[T]he lower presence of the elderly in nursing homes would have limited the foci of contagion among the population with the highest risk,” according to the CEU.

This echoes the situation in the U.S., where 42% of all COVID-19 deaths and more than 40% of all COVID-19 cases are linked to nursing homes.

The population decline likely contributed to the deaths of those who were never infected by the virus, researchers found. If the household norms of 1970 had held, less than 800,000 Spaniards would have lived alone during Spain’s COVID-19 confinement – instead of 4.5 million people. The spike in suicides is a “global psychological pandemic” affecting “older adults living in loneliness and isolation,” according to a new paper in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity. As Julio Loredo writes:

In 1976, only 2% of the population [of Spain] lived alone. Today, that percentage has jumped to 11%. Almost five million Spaniards spent the quarantine alone, creating a ticking time bomb of psychological problems that are now beginning to surface.

These findings refute the Malthusian notion that overpopulation threatens human survival, a view recently popularized by such diverse figures as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, and former royals Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

Instead, a birth dearth is stalking the world. The world’s population will peak at 9.7 billion in 44 years, then contract by almost a billion people by 2100. By that time, 23 nations will see their populations fall by half; Japan has already peaked and will lose 59% of its citizens.

In the United States, the total fertility rate hit 1.7% in 2019 – “another record low for the nation,” the CDC notes. The trend has not yet reached its nadir. The U.S. is headed for “a large, lasting baby bust,” the Brookings Institution predicted in June.

An aging population directly threatens the survival of citizens who live in social welfare states. Rural areas, which have an older population and a greater level of government dependence, are watching their local hospitals follow their children into the big city. A total of 9% of all rural hospitals have closed since 2005. “One thing that makes it difficult for a rural hospital is heavy reliance on Medicare and Medicaid,” as Terry Scoggin, CEO of a rural Texas hospital told the Washington Examiner. Medicare rolls have soared 11 million since 2011, not including the 16.7 million Americans who joined Medicaid over the same period.

Attempts to replace the natural, nuclear family with trust in government welfare programs only harms society. These lessons must be remembered before the inevitable outbreak of the next global virus.

God instituted the family when He observed, “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18). Alienation is no more natural or beneficial at the end of life than it is at the beginning. Science continues to bear out this biblical truth.

(Photo credit: Mstyslav Chernov. CC BY-SA 4.0.)

Rev. Ben Johnson

Rev. Ben Johnson is Executive Editor of the Acton Institute's flagship journal Religion & Liberty and edits its transatlantic website.