Remember in the first weeks of the pandemic last year when Italy was the focus of the outbreak? News out of China was sketchy, so most of what we saw and heard of the new virus was from northern Italy: ambulances racing along narrow and dark streets, locked down towns, rows of coffins in churches being blessed by mask-wearing priests. It was a foretaste of what the rest of the world was going to become very familiar with.
One of the things that made Italy so susceptible to COVID-19 was its population structure – it was an elderly population that was more susceptible to catching and dying from the virus. As of the 21st of January 2021, Italy has had over 83,000 of its citizens die from COVID, making it one of the countries hardest hit by the pandemic.
According to Istat, the Italian national statistics agency, COVID will drive the number of fatalities overall to somewhere north of 700,000 in 2020, up from 647,000 in 2019. While an increase of deaths due to COVID is highly predictable, at the other end of the age pyramid, the already low number of Italian births is expected to further decline. COVID is expected to squeeze the Italian population at both ends – more deaths, fewer births.
In 2019 there were 420,000 births, the lowest number in Italy since unification in 1861. It is expected that this historically low number will further decline in 2020 to perhaps 408,000. According to Gian Carlo Blangiardo, the fewer number of births in 2020 is due to “the climate of fear and uncertainty and the growing difficulties of a material nature generated by recent events”. People have fewer babies when the world looks like it is going to the dogs: aside from the virus, the country’s unemployment rate is set to rise in 2021 to 11 per cent. Many Italian women are asking themselves: “If I have a baby today, will I have a job tomorrow?”
Even those women who are still employed are unable to juggle work and family life due to a lack of affordable childcare facilities and inflexible work conditions.
The low Italian birth rate is certainly on the government’s radar: the president, Sergio Mattarella, said early in 2020 that the country’s falling birth rate is an existential problem. There is now one Italian child for every five Italians over the age of 65. As sociologist Giorgia Serughetti argues “The other problem is that the country gets old, as fewer young people mean less energy and ideas”.