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A baby boom during the coronavirus pandemic isn’t likely, experts say

Will we see a “baby boom” nine months later, since so many couples are cooped up inside with nowhere to go? 

In fact, they say the United States will probably see the number of births decrease. And other notable population shifts are likely as well.

“There’s no way that the number of births is going to go up,” says Kenneth Johnson, a professor of sociology and demographer at the University of New Hampshire. “This is not the kind of environment in which people say, ‘Let’s bring a child into the world now.'”

Even before the pandemic hit, demographers say a combination of factors — fewer births, more deaths and less immigration — were already creating a “perfect storm” slowing the nation’s population growth. 

Add to that the changes coronavirus is expected to bring on all these fronts, and that storm is only going to intensify. 

One major reason a baby boom isn’t likely: the economy

Financial uncertainty often makes people postpone — or even forgo — decisions to have children.

Case in point: the aftermath of the Great Recession, the economic downturn that begin in late 2007.

“Fertility dropped substantially. That’s not unusual. That often happens during difficult economic times,” Johnson says.

But what is surprising, Johnson says, is that since then, the birth rate hasn’t bounced back. It’s been declining ever since. 

And demographers say the uncertainty fueled by the novel coronavirus pandemic isn’t going to make matters any better.  

This disaster isn’t the same as a blackout or hurricane, says Rogelio Sáenz, a professor in the Department of Demography at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

“Those are short-term kinds of things that take place. This is going to be a drastically long kind of event, and also with the economic impacts. … Economic uncertainty really impacts fertility,” he said. “This is likely to lead to even further drops in fertility and births as well.”

Last year there were 3.79 million births in the United States, the lowest number since 1986.

Last year more people than ever died in the US

While births are decreasing, the number of people dying in the United States is on the rise. Last year the number of deaths hit a record high of 2.83 million.

“That’s primarily because the population is getting older,” Johnson says. “The mortality rate of older people is getting higher.”

William Samuels delivers caskets to the Gerard Neufeld Funeral Home in the Queens borough of New York City on Friday, March 27, 2020.

Here’s why these numbers are important to keep an eye on:

When there are more births than deaths, the difference between those two numbers is known as the “natural increase” of the population. When there are more deaths than births, it’s know as “natural decrease.” Overall the US population is still experiencing “natural increase,” but barely.

If the number of deaths start to outpace the number of births, societal strain can follow. Imagine a growing number of people retiring, but fewer young people in the workforce, or a growing number of elderly without enough people to care for them.

And already, the US is closer than ever to that happening.

Recently released government data shows the country’s population growth rate is the lowest it’s been in more than a century. It was just .48% last year, the lowest it’s been since 1919, the last time a pandemic hit. Approximately 675,000 people in the United States died as a result of the influenza pandemic.
Nurses care for victims of the influenza pandemic outdoors in 1918 in Lawrence, Massachusetts.
As Johnson pointed out in a recent analysis of Census data, first reported by the New York Times, in nearly half of the country’s counties more people died than were born last year. And nationwide the gap between the number of people who died and the number of people who were born was smaller than it’s been in decades.

Now factor in coronavirus.

White House officials shared a dire message this week, telling Americans they should be prepared for 100,000-240,000 people to die nationwide as a result of the pandemic. 
Some experts — including CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta — have warned the death toll could end up being higher, given that social distancing orders aren’t yet in place everywhere in the US.

What will this mean for the US population growth rate? Demographers say it’s too soon to say.

“It could certainly be the lowest growth rate in US history,” Johnson says.

If the death toll does end up being higher than the White House model predicts, the United States could experience something that’s never happened before: a year-to-year decline in its population. 

“There’s potential for population loss over the coming year,” Sáenz says. 

William Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says the past decade is already on pace to be the slowest for population growth in US history. But he doesn’t think the coronavirus will move the needle as much when it comes to overall population numbers.

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this Covid-19 is going to make us become a declining population. I think that’s a shorter-term thing and things will sort of bounce back,” he says. “We’ll have the normal death rates going forward. There will be some shorter-term shifts in the population.”

Immigration had already plummeted. Then borders closed around the world

When the population’s natural growth rate slows, immigration historically has made up the difference. But that, too, is declining.

From July 2018 to July 2019, immigration in the United States fell to a net gain of around 595,000 people, Frey says. Compare that to a few years ago, when it was close to a million. 

“This is by far the lowest year we’ve seen for immigration since at least the ’90s,” he says.

US Customs officers stand beside a sign at the US-Canada border in Lansdowne, Ontario, on March 22, 2020.
And given that coronavirus fears have fueled unprecedented efforts by countries around the world to close their borders and impose travel restrictions, we’re not likely to see an uptick anytime soon.

Frey says he expects immigration to climb again, though it’s not clear when.

“Really, immigration is kind of our only hope to keep things sort of stable. … Immigration can make a difference and it has made a difference,” he says. “Immigrants and their children are younger than the rest of the population. Latinos and other minorities make up more than half of the births in the United States.”

So amid all this uncertainty, what happens next with births in the US is important — even though a coronavirus baby boom isn’t likely.

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Biden: Trump should ‘stop talking and start listening to the medical experts’

Trump set the Easter goal earlier Tuesday on Fox News. It’s a date that few health experts believe will be sufficient in containing the spread of coronavirus.

“Look, we all want the economy to open as rapidly as possible. The way to do that is let’s take care of the medical side of this immediately,” Biden said in an interview with CNN.

The former vice president said he could envision some parts of the country and some sectors being ready to return to work on Trump’s timeline.

“But the idea that we’re in a position where we’re saying, by Easter, he wants to have everybody going back to work? What’s he talking about?” Biden said.

Biden said Trump is “not responsible for the coronavirus” but that the President is “responsible for the delay in taking the actions that need to be taken.”

He said Trump should have invoked the Defense Production Act earlier and used its powers to require companies to rapidly ramp up production of medical equipment like masks and ventilators.

“He says he’s a war-time president — well God, act like one. Move. Fast,” Biden said.

Biden has been off the campaign trail for two weeks as the pandemic has forced candidates to cancel rallies and fundraisers and order staff to work from home. His campaign converted a room in his Wilmington, Delaware, home into a broadcast studio, and Biden began a media blitz Tuesday.

In the interview, Biden said he has not been tested for coronavirus because he has not exhibited any symptoms, and that he is following medical experts’ advice — including keeping distance from his grandchildren when they visit and ensuring everyone who enters his house, including the Secret Service, wears gloves and masks.

At one point in the interview, Biden coughed into his hand. Tapper told Biden that doing so was “kind of old school” and that he should cough into his elbow.

“Actually that is true,” Biden said. “But fortunately I’m alone in my home. But that’s OK. I agree. You’re right.”

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Security experts raise concerns about voting app used by military voters

The app is designed by the company Voatz, whose technology has been piloted so far in West Virginia, Colorado and Utah.

“We want to be clear that all nine of our governmental pilot elections conducted to date, involving less than 600 voters, have been conducted safely and securely with no reported issues,” Voatz said in the statement. “The researchers’ true aim is to deliberately disrupt the election process, to sow doubt in the security of our election infrastructure, and to spread fear and confusion.”

The report comes amid rising concern about the use of apps and online voting tools in the 2020 election following the failure of reporting tools in the Iowa caucuses.

Last year, Utah County, Utah, began using Voatz for disabled and military voters based overseas. In an interview, County Clerk Amelia Powers Gardner said Voatz made more sense than the previous system, which required remote voters to submit their ballots by email.

A review of Utah County’s implementation of Voatz — prior to the MIT report’s publication — did not uncover any problems, Gardner told CNN. Gardner said that in phone conversations with the MIT researchers, it became clear they preferred voting to be done the traditional way, by pencil and paper. But Gardner said that isn’t feasible for Utahns living abroad.

“I have a legal obligation to provide our military members overseas an electronic form of a ballot,” she said, “and if it’s not this, it’s email — which they agreed is not as secure.”

The researchers’ conclusions about security risks in the app were based on a reverse-engineered version of Voatz’s Android app, which they ran in a simulated environment. According to the study, a hacker who gains control of a smartphone with the app installed could interfere in the voting process by altering ballots or figuring out which candidate a voter supports.

“Which means they could stop your ballot if they knew you were going to vote for someone they didn’t like,” Mike Specter, one of the authors of the report, told CNN.

Other election security experts who have reviewed the MIT paper say it appears solid.

“This study from MIT appears to have been structured with care in the way that the analysis was conducted,” said Andrea Matwyshyn, an election security expert at Penn State University.

On a conference call with reporters Thursday, however, Voatz criticized the report’s methodology. Company executives said the researchers had used an outdated version of the software and that some of the issues they found had already been patched. Voatz also accused the researchers of making “hypothetical” claims based on their simulation, rather than having the app interact with an actual Voatz server.

“We already have this server available,” said Nimit Sawhney, Voatz’s CEO. “It’s to our public bug bounty program. Anybody who wishes to sign up, test the apps over there, against the real server with full functionality, is able to do that.”

The company declined to comment further.

While participating in the bug bounty program would allow researchers to verify how Voatz’s app interacts with the company’s servers, the law largely prohibits researchers from testing the servers themselves, said Eric Mill, a cybersecurity expert who has administered technology programs for the federal government.

“The fact that the app happens to talk to the server isn’t the same as giving permission to research the real server,” said Mill.

Critics say Voatz should be more transparent about its technology and those it has tapped to perform independent audits. They also say Voatz previously reported a University of Michigan researcher to the FBI for conducting similar tests of the technology, and the report’s authors cited that episode as a reason they did not contact the company directly.

They instead reported their findings to the Department of Homeland Security, which routinely acts as a clearinghouse for election integrity information.

Voatz said Thursday that the MIT researchers should have reached out to them, in spite of their concerns about Voatz’s handling of prior research attempts. It also said it has signed non-disclosure agreements that prevent the company from discussing many of its past audits, though it did acknowledge that DHS has done its own review.

The technology news site Coindesk said it obtained a copy of the DHS review and reported it on Friday, adding that while US officials found few major issues with Voatz, the review focused primarily on the company’s internal network and servers — not the app that was the subject of the MIT report.

The tension between Voatz and independent security experts is not surprising, Mill said. But he added that the trend in the industry in recent years has tended toward greater disclosure and openness, not less — making Voatz’s reaction to the report stand out. It also highlights a common misperception that greater secrecy leads to stronger security, he said.

“That basic feeling of security through obscurity, that you want to release as few details as possible to give your attacker as little information as possible, is a very common gut instinct for a lot of lay folks and in some cases by technologists,” said Mill. “It comes from fear and also maybe not understanding or appreciating the public’s role in ensuring defense.”

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Davos 2020: American politics is the biggest risk facing the world right now, say experts

That’s the view of experts at consultancies Eurasia Group and Control Risks. The World Economic Forum, which is preparing to hold its annual meeting of political leaders and CEOs next week in Davos, is also warning of increased turbulence this year from trade conflicts and political polarization that makes it harder to tackle global challenges.

“The campaign will focus foreign policy on managing crises, distracting US attention from non-urgent issues and geographies. Trump’s thirst for deliverable ‘wins’ before the election, meanwhile, will amplify foreign leverage in trade and security relations,” Control Risks wrote in a recent report.

Eurasia Group, which has designated US politics as the top risk for the first time in its annual assessment of the state of the world, warns that the election will be the most divisive in over a century, with the outcome likely to be viewed as illegitimate by roughly half the population. The analysts expect the result to be contested, no matter which candidate triumphs.

“The 2020 election is an American Brexit — a maximally polarized vote where the risk is less the outcome than the political uncertainty of what the people voted for,” Eurasia Group says in its report. “It’s uncharted political territory, and this time in a country where uncertainty creates shock waves abroad.”

In preparing its report ahead of the Davos meeting, the World Economic Forum surveyed 750 global experts and decision makers who named economic confrontations and national political polarization as the top risks in 2020.

Taken together, the reports depict a world facing thorny problems with few obvious solutions. Increasingly fractious politics in developed countries is undermining the rules that have underpinned trade and globalization for decades, giving elected leaders license to act unilaterally and stoking conflicts such as the trade war between the United States and China.

US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who will attend the Davos meeting, rejected the idea that the upheaval in American politics is a threat.

“I don’t think it has any impact on the world economy,” Mnuchin told reporters on Wednesday, adding that other political issues such as Britain’s departure from the European Union and last year’s deadlocked elections in Israel were similarly inconsequential.

 White House official says Trump expected to go to Davos after skipping during 2019 shutdown
Other huge headaches haven’t gone away. The people paid to identify threats to global peace and prosperity are also worried about the climate crisis, the battle between Washington and Beijing over the future of technology, geopolitical aggression on the part of Russia and continued armed conflict in the Middle East.

A decade ago, most risk analysts were worried about financial issues such as asset bubbles, according to John Drzik, a contributor to the World Economic Forum report and chairman at research firm Marsh & McLennan Insights. Those worries have been replaced by new, more complicated challenges that are often linked.

“In 2020, we have a combination of negative trend lines that we’ve not experienced in generations. This deteriorating environment is much more likely to produce a global crisis,” warned analysts at Eurasia Group.

The world has already been confronted with two major flashpoints this year. The killing of top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani on Trump’s orders brought the two countries to the brink of war, endangering oil supplies from the Middle East and leading Tehran to accelerate its uranium enrichment, a move that could put Iran on a path to constructing a nuclear weapon.

Tensions cooled after US troops avoided casualties in an Iranian reprisal attack on bases in Iraq and Trump dialed down his rhetoric. Analysts think that Iran, which has severe economic problems and a restive population at home, will now seek to avoid open conflict with the United States while opportunistically striking back against American interests.

“Iran will continue to disrupt tanker traffic in the Gulf. Tehran also has a penchant for hitting adversaries in unpredictable, asymmetric ways, including through its robust offensive cyber capabilities and proxy network across the region with the capacity to target the citizens and assets of the United States and its allies,” assessed the Eurasia Group.

Climate in crisis

And the devastating bush fires in Australia have underscored why concerns about the climate dominate in the longer run. According to the World Economic Forum survey, the top five risks over the next decade all relate to the environment, including increased extreme weather events and the collapse of ecosystems.
Fires, storms and floods cost $150 billion in 2019. More disasters are on the way

“The near-term impacts of climate change add up to a planetary emergency that will include loss of life, social and geopolitical tensions and negative economic impacts,” the group warns in a report discussing its survey.

Drzik said that climate change dominates the top of the longer range ranking because experts and investors are getting better at understanding and measuring the risks involved. And they are also recognizing that while climate change will put some companies out of business, it also means new opportunities.

One example: BlackRock (BLK) CEO Larry Fink, who controls $7 trillion in investments, said on Tuesday that the asset manager will ditch investments that it considers a sustainability risk.

— Joe Johns contributed reporting from Washington.

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