From David Vincent in Shropshire, UK: Having Babies

July 29. A Minister of Health, Nadine Dorries, is reported as speculating that nine months on from the start of the lockdown there will be a bulge in business in the nation’s maternity units.

Should we take her seriously?  There are two levels of response to this question.

The first is ad personam.  This is the same Nadine Dorries whose first book, published in 2014, was described by the Daily Telegraph reviewer as ‘the worst novel I’ve read in 10 years. Only with imaginative effort might some readers of a mawkish disposition like The Four Streets. A sequel – may the Holy Mother protect us – is due in the autumn.’  Undeterred, she appears to have written another fourteen novels, all of the same quality.  In the meantime she earned a reputation in Parliament, as an especially thoughtless, publicity-seeking Brexiteer, opposed to gay marriages and abortion counselling.  So it was when Johnson came to form his ministry-of-almost-no-talents, she was appointed a Minister in what would become the key Government Department for responding to the pandemic.  Here she distinguished herself by becoming the very first MP to be infected with Covid-10, getting diagnosed on the same day she attended a reception with the Prime Minister at Number 10.

Then there is the scientific evidence.  Studies beginning with the 1889 flu epidemic in France and the 1918-19 global Spanish flue pandemic have long established that birth rates tend to fall rather than rise after a medical crisis.*  This applies also to natural disasters like major earthquakes.  In the case of our current event, in a recent study people under 35 living in five European countries – France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK were asked whether they intended to have children this year.  Between 60 and 80% of respondents replied that they were postponing or abandoning altogether such a decision.

The reason for this caution is not hard to find.  Parents seek as much security as possible for the early years of child-rearing.  In the case of the coronavirus pandemic, every forecaster is predicting the worst economic recession since as far back as records exist.  The only question is about the speed of recovery.  It is recognised that the aftermath of the 1918-19 pandemic, compounded by the Slump of 1929, depressed birth rates in Britain throughout the inter-war period.

What is different this time is the demographic context.  I have always felt vaguely guilty that my three children have been a contribution to the unsustainable rise in the global population.  Since 1970 the number of people on the planet has almost doubled to the current figure of 7.8bn and was thought to heading to 11bn by the end of the century.  Now a new study by Washington University is predicting that the peak will be reached in 2064 and will be followed by a major fall in most populations outside Africa, with a halving in countries such as Japan and Spain.**  In Britain the Office for National Statistics reports a 12.2% fall in the birth rate since 2012, giving a reproduction rate of 1.65 per woman, well below the level needed to maintain current numbers.  

If these projections are even distantly accurate, they pose a major threat to the sustainability of modern economies.  The old will no longer have enough people of working age to pay for their pensions and their health care.  The long-term remedy will involve major changes in the notion of what a ‘working age’ is.  Mine may be the last generation ever fully to retire.

In the short term there are only two solutions in the UK.  Increase the birth rate by attacking child poverty, restoring Sure Start, improving nursery provision, reversing reductions in per-capita educational funding.

Or increase immigration.  Not a policy favoured by Nadine Dorries.

* A. Aassvel, et al, ‘The COVID-19 pandemic and human fertility’ Science,  vol. 369, issue 6502, 24 Jul 2020, pp. 370-1

** Stein Emil Vollset et al, ‘Fertility, Mortality, Migration and Population Scenarios for 195 countries and territories from 2017 to 2100: a forecasting analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study’, Lancet,July 14, 2020.

from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: Sunday night and a project

May 31. I don’t like Sunday nights. Maybe this stems from my years at boarding school, when Sunday nights were the pits. Maybe it was the long weeks remaining of term time, or the sad girls coming back from exeat, or struggling over an evening meal of brown vegetable soup, or the sound of weeping after lights out.

And this Sunday night, the last night of May 2020, it seems the world is not getting better on many levels. I planned to write a blog about how we all hoped for an improved quality of life emerging after Covid-19. I would amass the feel-good stories of people being kind and resourceful and imagine how this might carry forward.

Instead, tonight the TV news was about the USA cities on fire with protests as the country is saddled with a president who fails on every count of decency, honesty and moral leadership. Next came the news about the virus: we have reached over 6 million cases and 370,000 deaths of Covid-19 world wide and that is surely a significant under-assessment of the real numbers. These numbers are rubbery, certainly not overstated. The virus spread continues – without much check in densely populated countries.

My husband and I are in the cohort of the elderly in need of ‘shielding’ (as the Guardian suggests). The over 70’s. As my friend, James, said, it’s a bit like being back at boarding school. There are certain similarities: that feeling of nothing to look forward to, an awareness that you are being controlled by the system. This sense that tomorrow is like today.

But hold on! We have so much more we can do. We baby boomers have, in general, lived a charmed life in the West. Better education, better health that ever before. So, we have lived longer than the generations before us. We are a bridge between the old world and the new one of our grandchildren and we are in a position to remember the lives of our parents and the stories that came down through them of our grandparent’s lives. We might have snippets, or long stories; we might have old black photos albums or diaries. But I am sure we have something – and that something is of value.

My father was born in 1911, my mother in 1920. They were strong people and valued their backgrounds. I learnt of my grandparents and their birthdates go back to the 1880’s. I have stories of the Boer war, of the Kimberley’s diamond mines, of a great uncle dying in the Gaza desert in the 1st WW; of an uncle shot down in the Dieppe Raid, of my father fighting the Italians in the mountains of Somaliland in the 2nd WW and of my mother driving an African man mauled by a leopard to a hospital in Tanganyika. And so it goes.

The thing is, our kids are too busy, our grandchildren are too ignorant – at the moment to ask, to remember, to value this. We have a debt to pay, to record what we know of the past: to keep our family stories alive for the future – whatever form that takes. We are the shaky bridge between the past and the strange post Covid-19 future.

It’s not a repeat of a boarding school exercise, but it is a serious project to take on board during Covid-19. No exams to fear, no pass or fail, just a challenge to record your past as a gift for your future generations.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury: children of the aftermath

May 13.  As much as we are all wondering how we will get through to the end, we are also contemplating how we will be changed by the experience.  From hospitals to universities, managers of complex, rule-bound organisations are astonished at how behaviours set in stone for decades have been transformed in a matter of weeks, and are speculating about how long such a metabolism of change can continue.

There is another way of considering the aftermath.  I have a new great nephew, born on May 1st in a village on the shores of Loch Lomond, a great niece due next month in York, and if all goes well I shall have a new granddaughter, born to my son and his wife towards the end of August in East London.  The brave post-pandemic world will be the one in which these children will take their first steps, and form their identities and ambitions.

In this regard, I have a shared experience.  I was born early in 1949, when Britain was still in the midst of reconstruction after VE day which we have just celebrated.  The bomb damage in the major cities was yet to be cleared.  Rationing was to continue for a further five years.  Whilst we now celebrate the heroic construction of the welfare state, life in those years was hard.  The winter of 1946-7 was one of the coldest on record, causing and compounded by serious fuel shortages.

Looking back, what strikes me most about my childhood was how much my perspective was cast towards the future.  This was partly because my own family had not suffered greatly in the war.  There were no fatalities, no battlefield injuries still blighting civilian life.  It was partly because I spent my early years in parts of the country which had not experienced physical damage (in Stoke-on-Trent, where my father’s family came from and which we frequently visited, the story was that the Luftwaffe had flown over the city, concluded that it had already been bombed, and passed on). 

And it was partly because as a small child I was the direct and immediate beneficiary of the Welfare State.  I was conceived in the same summer that the NHS began its life.  My father was a junior civil servant, seconded to Blackpool after the war to work on planning the new system, then promoted to run the first office of the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance in the north midlands town of Banbury and then in Oxford.  I was in every possible way a child of the new provision, and I can still remember walking with my mother to collect my welfare orange juice from the clinic and my reading books from the children’s library next door.  Later came free education all the way up to my Cambridge doctorate.

If I have hope for the new members of my family, it must be based on two aspirations.  Firstly, that they should be lucky in the homes into which they are born, as I was in mine.  Where there has been death from coronavirus, where the outcome of the pandemic is of embittered lives, undermined health, shattered finances, long-term unemployment, it will be so much harder to form confident, optimistic identities. 

Secondly, that we do in fact create a new world in which, once more, the wellbeing of every child, physical and educational, is front and centre of our collective action.  It is a matter of addressing the inequalities which continue to disfigure our society three quarters of a century after the reforms of the 1945 Labour Government.  And is a matter of ensuring, by signs and by facts, that each child feels itself the most important and cared-for person not just in its immediate family, but in all the places in which it develops as a person.  I had that sense in my beginning.  I grew up looking forwards, learning about the Second World War and its suffering only much later, mostly through history books.  Whilst as adults we must never forget what we have lived through this year, these growing children should never be held back by it.