The Philippine Press Institute (PPI) recently held a roundtable discussion that sought to explain why the country’s birthrate has slowed down during the COVID-19 pandemic.

When the pandemic hit the country in 2020, the prediction was that the lockdowns would result in an increase in the Philippines’ birthrate. Back then, the Commission on Population (POPCOM) and Development predicted that live births in the country would increase to almost 2 million in 2021. However, that has not come to pass, with the country’s birthrate dropping to its lowest level in 34 years.

As part of the maiden episode of its monthly roundtable series, the PPI invited POPCOM executive director Dr. Juan Antonio Perez III and St. Luke’s Medical Center Psychiatrist Dr. Bernadette Arcena to give their insights on why the country’s population growth actually slowed down during the pandemic, and what this means for its future.

Factors that were thought to lead to an increase in birthrate actually led to the opposite

Perez stated that POPCOM’s initial projections from 2020 were based on various studies, including one by the UP Population Institute, that predicted an increase in population growth during the pandemic. These predictions were predicated on couples losing access to health and family planning services, leading to more unplanned pregnancies.

That said, the loss of access to these may have helped lower the birthrate. Perez noted that a November 2020 survey by Social Weather Stations (SWS) indicated that unintended or unplanned pregnancies were among the major concerns of a majority of Filipino women during the pandemic.

In addition, the survey showed that Filipino women were also anxious about COVID-19’s effects on the well-being of their families, their unborn children and the country’s economic condition.

“Women were afraid of one thing, that was unplanned pregnancies,” Perez pointed out. “They did not want to become pregnant during a pandemic and during an economic crisis.”

“And that was true for around 70 percent of women, afraid of either their own unplanned pregnancy or teen pregnancy as an issue that they were also looking at as a potential problem,” he added.

Perez added that this caused POPCOM to rethink its population growth projections.

Dr. Arcena doubled down on the effects of anxiety and other mental health issues brought about by the pandemic such as depression.

She noted that not only are there more people availing of psychiatric services during the pandemic but that the ages of the patients are getting younger.

Beyond anxiety and worries about unplanned pregnancies during a combined health and economic crisis, Perez and Arcena also noted that lockdowns forcing most Filipinos to stay at home may have also had a role to play in the lower birth rate. Having the whole family at home during these lockdowns has given couples fewer chances for intimacy.

Perez noted that about one-third of all houses in Metro Manila are smaller than 20 square meters, which he pointed out was not enough space to give couples privacy.

In addition, economics may also have something of a role to play. Perez admitted that the lack of employment due to the economic downturn may have contributed to low population growth. That said, he noted that the country had previously experienced high population growth in previous financial crises.

Population is still growing, but slower growth is a good thing

Despite the slowdown in the country’s birthrate, Perez stated that the country’s population is still growing—just at a slower pace. He said that POPCOM is predicting an increase of around 300,000 births in 2021 when all the data for the year comes in.

More importantly, both Perez and Arcena emphasized that the slower population growth is a good thing for the country.

Perez pointed out that, based on their data, more couples are now availing of family planning services. This was something that POPCOM had been working on even before the pandemic. However, before the pandemic, POPCOM had expected that it would take until 2025 before something like this would happen.

“Actually, that is good news for us, because all the factors have increased family planning use leading to lower population, which is actually what we were working for,” he mentioned. “But around 2025 was when we thought that would happen.”

He added that POPCOM would like to see the slower population growth sustained even after the pandemic.

Arcena agreed that the slower birth rate was a good thing, saying that it indicated an increase in responsible parenthood and family planning.

“You can see that responsible parenthood is there,” she noted. “And you can easily take care of a small family.”

However, she warned that this has come with a mental toll on parents who are now suffering from anxiety and depression as they deal with the pandemic.

Moreover, she wants that the end of the pandemic could lead to a sudden surge in the birthdate.

Baka after ng pandemic, upsurge nanaman ng growth rate,” she warned. “Kasi wala an yung fear.”

Perez acknowledged this, noting that the last time the country’s birthrate was this low—just after the World War II—it immediately saw an upsurge in births, part of the “Baby Boom” that happened around the world after that conflict.

However, Perez pointed out one difference that could help keep a new baby boom from happening. Back in the late 40s and 50s Filipino couples did not yet have access to family planning programs. He states that the fact that more Filipino couples are availing of these today could help sustain the country’s low population growth. DZUP

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