The rapid spread of the Zika virus across Latin America, and its suspected link to an outbreak of birth defects, has prompted governments to do something without much precedent in human history: urge people to hold off on having kids. Facing what the World Health Organization has now called an international emergency, El Salvador has asked women to avoid getting pregnant until 2018, while countries such as Brazil and Colombia have suggested waiting several months, or indefinitely. Imagine you are trying to get pregnant, or already are, and you hear that message from your government. Would you take it seriously? And if you did, and all your peers did, what would that actually look like five, or 25, years out? Classes with no or hardly any students? Baby stores forced out of business? A depleted younger generation unable to support older ones?
What, in other words, are the social and economic consequences of a gap like that in a country’s or region’s population?
“It’s difficult to define what the effect could be because you don’t know how this epidemic will evolve,” said Jose Miguel Guzman, a former demographer at the United Nations who’s now with the consulting firm ICF International. He noted that there are 10 to 11 million births in Latin America per year, which means the population would drop by that number if, theoretically, all births were postponed for a year. “This is not a high percentage,” he told me. “Take into account that the population for Latin America is about 634-635 million.” But such a decline could cause the total population in the region, where birth rates have been falling for decades, to grow more slowly or contract sooner than expected.