By K.M. Seethi
Is the global population poised for a structural shift in the coming decades? This could probably be a major theme of discussion among demographers and social policy experts, particularly since the outbreak of COVID-19 and with the revisit of the population/family planning polices by countries like China, South Korea, Japan and Singapore. The figure of casualties caused by the pandemic (which has already crossed four million in a year and a half) is certainly worrying, but the death rate may get stabilised with increased health care interventions and vaccine drive across the world. Yet, reports of new strains of coronavirus causing fresh outbreaks in some countries continue to generate anxieties regarding vaccine efficacy and fatality quotient.
Even as the social and health security costs of the pandemic have warranted reassessments of demographic variables, the population policy of China has emerged as another pointer to the trends underway in the East Asian region. This is significant in the context of a projection that as many as 55 countries in the world are estimated to face a population fall by 2050.
For instance, China’s population is predicted to drop by 31.4 million in another three decades. Such estimates prompted China to officially relax its family planning policy, permitting couples to have three children. The policy change sought to address the issues of the country’s population structure which included its ageing challenge. Though China has the largest population in the world (1.41 billion), it has had an average annual population growth rate of 0.53 per cent in the last decade, maintaining a low growth trend. Experts even suggested that a change of the population policy should also be accompanied by “measures to encourage childbirth, such as subsidizing couples who choose to have more than one child.”
‘World Population Day’ Amid The Pandemic
While the theme of World Population Day (WPD) in 2020 was How to safeguard the health and rights of women and girls now, the focus this year is again on a subject related to the pandemic-troubled world: Rights and choices are the answer: Whether baby boom or bust, the solution to shifting fertility rates lies in prioritizing the reproductive health and rights of all people.The WPD (July 11) was initiated by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in 1989 with the objective of drawing global attention on issues related to population growth—besides crucial questions such as poverty, unemployment and human quality index etc. Among the issues discussed as part of the WPD are the agonies of women and children, the plight of indigenous communities, the woes of migrants, the miseries of disabled and ageing people, etc. K.C. Zachariah—a Keralite scholar who worked as a demographer at the World Bank (1971-1987) and later served as Honorary Professor at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram—was the person who mooted the idea of a population day, way back in 1987, when the population reached 5 billion. The world population reached one billion after hundreds of thousands of years, but in another two centuries it swelled to nearly seven times. Ten years back it reached 7 billion (2011) and currently it has crossed 7.8 billion. The population projection for 2030 is 8.5 billion and it is estimated to reach approximately 10 billion by 2050.
The UN population agencies say that among the factors which have driven the demographic surge are changing fertility rates, life expectancy, advances in reproductive age, growing urbanization and expanding internal and international migration. While the total fertility for the world has come down to 2.5 children per woman, average global lifespans have grown—from 64.6 years in the early 1990s to 72.6 years in 2019. There was also a dramatic shift in rural-urban population. In 2007, the world witnessed more people living in urban areas and it is estimated that by 2050 almost 66 per cent of the world population would be in cities. These trends have profound implications for the world with their natural impacts on health care, housing, water, food, energy, sanitation, employment, income distribution, poverty and social protections.
The WPD 2021 is observed in a crucial moment when pandemic played havoc with people across the world and many countries are still locked in a ‘war on COVID-19’ insofar as access to vaccines continues to be a major problem in the battle. The UN agencies have acknowledged that the pandemic has also affected the health care systems in the area of sexual and reproductive health. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) reported that as many as 12 million women experienced disruptions to family planning services. It also aggravated “gender-based inequities and gender-based violence increased under lockdown.” According to the UNFPA, “significant numbers of women left the labour force–their often low-paying jobs were eliminated or caregiving responsibilities for children learning remotely or for homebound older people increased–destabilizing their finances, not just for now but in the long run.” The agency in a statement said that though “a full picture of the impact of COVID-19 on fertility” is yet to be available,
“these trends have provoked alarmist concerns about baby booms or busts.” The UNFPA points to an alarming situation “when women cannot exercise their sexual and reproductive rights and choices” because “health services are interrupted, or because gender discrimination prevents them from making decisions about accessing health care.”
During the pandemic time, millions of women have lost their jobs. The COVID-19 and measures to check its spread have led to a disproportionate surge in women’s unemployment and also reduced their overall working time. The representation of women was quite high in many of the industries hardest hit by the pandemic, such as food service, retail and entertainment. For instance, 40 per cent of all employed women – 510 million women globally – work in hard-hit sectors, compared to 36.6 per cent of employed men. As much as 58 per cent of employed women work in informal employment, and estimates showed that during the first month of the pandemic, informal workers globally lost an average of 60 per cent of their income.
Migrant Population Amid Pandemic
Migrants are one of the worst affected sections of the world population in pandemic times. Conditions of lower paid migrants are even more miserable. Yet, a significant number of them are working in sectors where their services are critical, such as health care. According to estimates available, as of the first quarter of 2021, “emigrants from the 20 countries with the highest number of COVID-19 cases accounted for 31 per cent of the total international migrant stock and they had sent an estimated 37 per cent of all remittances globally to their countries of origin in 2019.”
Border controls across several countries affected the mobility of migrants and the role of humanitarian organizations. According to International Organisation for Migration, within one year after the onset of the pandemic, nearly 105,000 movement restrictions were put in place around the world. Migration to OECD countries was estimated to have dropped by 46 per cent in the first half of 2020 itself. The situation in the GCC countries is also alarming. Nearly 1.2 million ‘Gulf migrants’ have returned to Kerala in the midst of the pandemic and a majority of them have lost their jobs and are unable to return. The plight of the internal migrants is equally alarming. For instance, in India, more than 200 million migrant workers were badly affected by the pandemic (the total number of internal migrants in India stood at 600 million in 2020 of which 140 million were considered as ‘highly vulnerable’). Many faced travel controls including border closures, suspension of resettlement travel, and deportation left many isolated or forced to stay in overcrowded, temporary shelters. In the midst of these insecure conditions, many migrants experienced a lack of access to health services even if they were showing COVID-19 symptoms.
The situation is alarming for the refugees and displaced people. According to WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, “Refugees and migrants live and work in often-harsh conditions with inadequate access to health, housing, water, sanitation, and other basic services,” and “It is vital for all countries to reduce barriers that prevent refugees and migrants from obtaining health care, and to include them in national health policies.” It is estimated that there are 281 million international migrants and 26 million are refugees today, and as of 2020, more than 80 million were forced to leave their homes as a result of persecution, conflict, or generalized violence. The UN forecast that this trend would persist due to growing inequality, population growth, increasing connectivity, and climate change. These demographic factors have led to intensified appeals by the UN to “proactively place migrants’ needs front and centre of national health policies — and not simply as a reaction to crises or emergencies.”
Disabilities In COVID Times
The WHO says that people with disabilities have been differentially affected by COVID-19 because of three factors: the increased risk of poor outcomes from the disease itself, reduced access to routine health care and rehabilitation, and the adverse social impacts of efforts to mitigate the pandemic. According to the world body’s estimates, there are over 1 billion people living with some form of disability and the number of such category of people is “dramatically increasing.” This is due to demographic trends and increases in chronic health conditions, among other causes. According to WHO, people with disability “are disproportionately affected during the COVID-19 pandemic.” It also reminded that “If health services for people with disability exist, they are invariably of poor quality or under resourced. There is an urgent need to scale up disability services in primary healthcare, particularly in rehabilitation interventions.” A Lancet study also underlined that “Older age, deprivation, and comorbidities are also associated with increased risk of severe outcomes from COVID-19.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has seriously disrupted lives of all sections of the world population. Admittedly, its consequences differed significantly for people of different categories, races, ethnicities, and income levels. But its impacts on women, migrants and people with disabilities are so palpable that urgent national and international actions are required.