Covid and climate of fear puts Italian birth rate at lowest since unification

Italy’s birth rate is expected to diminish further as the economic strife and uncertainty brought on by the pandemic exacerbate its demographic crisis.

Italy registered 420,000 births in 2019 – the lowest rate since the country’s unification in 1861 – while deaths totalled 647,000. The birth rate could fall to around 408,000 this year, while coronavirus fatalities will drive total deaths beyond 700,000, according to recent estimates from Istat, the national statistics agency.

Gian Carlo Blangiardo, the president of Istat, has said it is “legitimate to hypothesise that the climate of fear and uncertainty and the growing difficulties of a material nature generated by recent events will have a negative impact on the fertility decisions of Italian couples”.

Of the total deaths expected in 2020, Blangiardo said: “This is a worrying level because the last time something like this happened was in 1944 when we were in the second world war.”

Italy, the first European country hit by the pandemic, has suffered a brutal first and second wave, with more than 67,000 confirmed coronavirus deaths since late February. Meanwhile, the country’s unemployment rate is forecast to rise from 9.4% this year to 11% in 2021.

Women have borne the brunt of the pandemic’s economic consequences, with many losing jobs or forced to leave to stay home with children who were no longer at school.

Even before the pandemic, less than half of all working-age Italian women were in jobs. And many of those who become pregnant resign as they are unable to juggle work and family life, with a lack of affordable childcare facilities and inflexible work conditions being among the main reasons.

“In Italy, it is particularly serious,” said Giorgia Serughetti, a sociologist at the University of Milan-Bicocca. “Gender inequality, and the lack of jobs and childcare services accentuates the problem, while Covid has added to the severity and uncertainty. So many people are now losing jobs, this is the reality – so they ask themselves: ‘If I have a child today, who knows if I will still have a job tomorrow?’”.

A mother and baby during the first coronavirus outbreak in Naples in April.
A mother and baby during the first coronavirus outbreak in Naples in April. Photograph: napolipress/REX/Shutterstock

During a recent meeting at a women’s association in Rome, Serughetti said the point was raised about women choosing to not have children as a kind of “silent protest” against the economic and social conditions in which they’re forced to live.

Italy’s president, Sergio Mattarella, said earlier this year that the country’s falling birth rate “is a problem that concerns the very existence of our country”.

“As an old person I am well aware of the falling birth rate,” he added.

In Italy, there is one child for every five people over the age of 65, according to Istat.

“An ageing population is a problem for the country’s system, not only for the economics and paying pensions etc, said Serughetti. “The other problem is that the country gets old, as fewer young people mean less energy and ideas.”


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