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Why Chinese hospitals closing delivery Wards? Why ‘Obstetric Winter’ is a concern?

ANM Desk

Obstetric Winter: China’s once-booming birth rate has hit a record low, causing a ripple effect across the nation’s healthcare system. Several hospitals in provinces like Zhejiang and Jiangxi have announced the closure of their maternity wards, citing a lack of demand and a looming ‘obstetric winter’. This alarming trend comes as China grapples with a shrinking population, raising concerns about the long-term health of the world’s second-largest economy.

The issue stems from a confluence of factors. China’s one-child policy, implemented from 1980 to 2015, significantly reduced birth rates. Though the policy ended in 2016, the cultural shift towards smaller families, coupled with the high costs of education in a competitive environment, discourages many young couples from having multiple children. Additionally, rising living expenses, record youth unemployment, and a stagnant wage environment for white-collar workers further dampen the desire for children.

Cause of ‘Obstetric Winter in China

‘Obstetric winter’ is the term given to the phenomenon of sharp declining birth rates. In China, the curent trend isn’t just a social issue – it’s an economic one too. China’s population fell for the second year in a row in 2023, with a record low birth rate and COVID-19 fatalities contributing to the decline. This translates to a shrinking workforce and consumer base, potentially hindering future growth prospects. The National Health Commission reports a drop in maternity hospitals, falling from 807 in 2020 to 793 in 2021.  With fewer newborns, many hospitals simply can’t justify keeping these departments open.

China’s plan to handle ‘Obstetric Winter’ crises

The demographic shift is further complicated by an ageing population. By 2035, the number of retirees in China is expected to exceed 400 million, surpassing the entire US population. This creates a massive burden on the social security system and healthcare resources.

The consequences of China’s demographic shift extend beyond its borders. In 2023, India surpassed China as the world’s most populous nation, prompting discussions on diversifying supply chains and reducing reliance on China amidst rising geopolitical tensions. Additionally, UN experts predict a long-term decline of 109 million people in China’s population by 2050, more than triple their previous estimates.

The Chinese government is scrambling to address the situation. They’ve implemented policies aimed at encouraging couples to have more children, like offering financial incentives and extending maternity leave. However, the effectiveness of these measures remains to be seen.

Impact of declining population in China

The future of China’s economy hinges on its ability to navigate this demographic crisis. Investing in automation, increasing productivity, and attracting foreign talent could be crucial in mitigating the impact of a shrinking workforce. Additionally, policies that address the financial anxieties of young couples, such as making childcare and education more affordable, are essential.

China’s “obstetric winter” is a stark reminder of the complex challenges associated with a rapidly ageing population and declining birth rates. The ripple effects will not be confined to China’s borders and could have a significant impact on the global economy in the years to come. Whether China can adapt and weather this demographic storm remains a question that only time will answer.

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