Speech Note of Dr. Sathya Doraiswamy, UNFPA Representative in Iran, In the Webinar

10 August 2021

Excellences, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen.

Salam and a very good morning.

It is a great pleasure to be with you today in this important webinar. I would like to take this opportunity to express my sincere gratitude to the organizers, especially Dr. Shabbak, the Head of Statistical Research and Training Center and the team at Statistical Center of Iran for tremendous efforts to make this event happen. I would like to also welcome our dear panelists and colleagues from the National Organization for Civil Registration and academia. I am looking forward to listening to your presentations and learning from the findings of your studies and research that you have carried out during the past months, taking into account all the challenges and difficulties you went through for data collection during COVID-19. We are still in the midst of the pandemic and many governments all around the world are doing their best to protect their citizens against the new variants which sadly seem to be more contagious and lethal.

Global solidarity including an equitable sharing of resources including vaccines and respect for science is needed more than ever to tide over this crisis. Let me begin by wishing you, your families and our beloved Iran, the very best during these challenging times. The COVID-19 pandemic is perhaps the greatest global public health crisis in this century. Since its emergence in late 2019, the coronavirus has spared no country. Globally, as of 8 August 2021, there have over 200 million confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 4.3 million deaths. Iran is also among the countries which have been severely hit by COVID-19 with over 4.0 million confirmed cases and 93,473 deaths since the start of the pandemic . Governments across the Asia-Pacific region and beyond including the Government of Islamic Republic of Iran have taken unprecedented steps to curb the spread of the virus, and provide care for the many infected individuals. While the morbidity and mortality due to COVID-19 have been documented reasonably well, the socioeconomic impact of the pandemic has been less well studied. While many governments have raised concerns over fertility patterns and childbearing behaviors, they remain comparatively less explored. Evidence would suggest that the impact of the pandemic on fertility and childbearing behaviours are unlikely to be uniform, both between and within countries.

Some experts proclaim that we are on the verge of a dramatic baby bust linked to fears around Covid-19, others fret that a baby boom is imminent, at least in some parts of the world, driving ever-escalating pressures on scarce resources. Some low, middle and upper-middle income countries are experiencing severe economic recession due to the pandemic and uncertainty which could affect the childbearing behaviors of young people and impact fertility trends in the near future. In settings where supply- and demand-side restrictions impede access to sexual and reproductive health services, there is real potential for a rise in unintended pregnancies in 2020 and 2021. In April 2020, UNFPA projected that 47 million women in 114 Low and Middle Income Countries may be unable to use reproductive health commodities and services if the average lockdown persisted for 6 months, with high levels of COVID-19 related disruptions to services, and that an additional 2 million women would be unable to use modern contraceptives for every 3 months the lockdown continued. This translates into an estimated 7 million unintended pregnancies and the associated risk of maternal deaths if the lockdown lasted for 6 months with major health service disruptions due to COVID-19. In addition to unintended pregnancies, restricted access to SRH services could lead to significant indirect negative health implications for mothers, infants and their families. Such effects were observed during the 2013-2016 Ebola outbreak, where an analysis found that reduced utilization of essential reproductive, maternal and neonatal health services could have led to 3,600 additional maternal, neonatal and stillbirth deaths in 2014-2015 under the most conservative scenario. Such socio-economic and health challenges in addition to existing impact of the unilateral sanctions in Iran could immensely complicate and aggravate the situation, which might affect childbearing behaviors of young people, and consequently impact fertility trends in the country.

Understanding the likely impact of the virus on fertility is important. In the short term, an understanding of future fertility trends is key for the planning of maternal, infant and child health care services, while in the longer term, fertility dynamics can support societal planning for future population ageing. Aside from population numbers, there is potential for various emerging facets of the pandemic to impede fertility choices. It is noteworthy that the declining pattern of fertility has been already observed in almost all developing countries, at a different pace and level. Much of the countries in the Asia and Pacific region are among the developing world, and experiencing such a rapid demographic shift. While some of these countries are still at early stage of transition, and struggling with high fertility, the majority of them such as Iran and countries in Eastern and Western Asia are at their late stages of the demographic transition, experiencing low fertility and rapid population ageing, mainly due to the great achievements in improvement in health, reproductive health, life expectancy and of course, literacy. Many governments in the Asia and Pacific region are adopting measures to curb fertility decline either through supportive or restrictive measures for households. Although we in the United Nations Population Fund acknowledge and recognize the need for population policies particularly in countries experiencing rapid population ageing and low fertility, we believe that the ultimate goal of such policies should provide an enabling and supportive environment for young people and couples to fulfil their basic needs, entering the labor force, holding decent jobs, increasing their income levels, tackling hindering issues towards marriage and childbearing, and not only contribute to increased productivity and economic growth in their country, but to be able to form their families based on choice and eventually realize their intended and desired fertility. The response to the barriers toward childbearing including COVID-19 crisis, offers an unprecedented opportunity to recognize and address key, often longstanding, barriers to fertility choices.

We can strive towards a situation where all individuals and couples have access freely to the information, education and means to plan for childbearing in this pandemic era and beyond. Finally, I would like to reiterate that our vision in the United Nations and in UNFPA is to seek a world where people and the planet get the support they need in the moments that matter most. We need to unlock our full potential for better decisions and deliver stronger support to people, particularly the most vulnerable populations who are severely affected during the past years in Iran due to the double impact of sanctions and the COVID-19 pandemic. This is possible with greater capacity to create, manage and use evidence, to make better decisions and, ultimately, better serve people during and postpandemic situations. I would like to reassure UNFPA’s full support to the government of Iran’s efforts, creating an enabling and supportive environment for young people, women and girls, strengthening their resilience and empowering them to overcome the existing barriers and challenges to fulfil their needs during these challenging times. I would like to end with a quote from our Executive Director, Dr. Natalia Kanem:

“We will have more harmonious societies, inclusive economies and a better balance with nature when people can fully realize their right to make informed decisions about their sexual and reproductive life, and enjoy every opportunity to do so, on terms that they alone define.”

Thank you again, and I wish you all a fruitful discussion.