Room 747 in the Duisenberg Building, belonging to professor Gerard van den Berg, looks empty. The cabinets are empty and there are moving boxes in the corner. Is he about to leave the University of Groningen? Nothing could be further from the truth. Van den Berg is very much enjoying himself in Groningen. But the coronavirus pandemic caused a delay in furnishing his room. It is only a small inconvenience for the econometrist. He knows very well how great an impact a pandemic or war can have on someone’s wellbeing even decades after the event.
Text: Martin Althof, Communication UG / Photos: Henk Veenstra
Gerard van den Berg has known the UG for a long time. He studied econometrics at the University in the 1980s, and returned in late 2020 after spending periods in Amsterdam, Princeton, Mannheim, and Bristol, among other places. Van den Berg has earned his stripes by doing research on the long-term impact of the life circumstances experienced during the first years of life. These are factors that leave their mark on the cognition, health, and economic productivity of humans. Van den Berg elucidates: ‘It often begins with a question, a sense of curiosity. For example: how is it possible that some humans live much longer than others? In such cases, there are often factors involved that cannot be directly observed. Until recently, we didn’t have a clear understanding of how important our genes are, for instance. I want to investigate the part that a certain factor plays, with the aid of large amounts of data. Can causal relationships be detected between one variable and another? Thirty years ago, the general belief was that we all start our lives with a blank slate. By now, we know that the “circumstances” in the uterus and in the years after that are of utmost importance.’
Van den Berg’s research has demonstrated that the lifespans of children born in the economic recessions of the 1930s and earlier, under circumstances such as less healthy food, high unemployment rates, and lots of stress, are on average three-quarters of a year shorter than those of children born in other periods. ‘In the past, we could even detect seasonal effects. In April, fresh vegetables and fruit were scarce. That had negative consequences on the children born in that period. In Australia, we saw those effects half a year later.’ A very special group includes the children born in the Dutch famine in the western Netherlands between December 1944 and May 1945 – a period of an extremely poor food situation. Van den Berg: ‘A lot of these people are still alive, so we can’t yet say much about the effects. But it is very likely that their lives will be significantly shorter than those of people who weren’t born in this period, or in that place.’
Less favourable circumstances in the first period of life are a kind of time bomb that these children drag along throughout the rest of their lives. Van den Berg concludes that research has already caused an increase in attention for the wellbeing of pregnant women – think, for example, of extra health checks, particularly in the United Kingdom and the United States. ‘In the Netherlands, this kind of care is already quite well organized, and so the expected gain is less great. The most important lesson that we can learn is that we have to somehow prevent pregnant women and small children from being exposed to great shock, such as extreme stress, unemployment, and malnutrition. Or events such as earthquakes, or an epidemic that suddenly emerges.’
Van den Berg moves towards current events – such as the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. ‘War is terrible. Both short term and long term. Children are haunted by it for an incredibly long time. Even coming generations will be subjected to negative consequences.’ Van den Berg worked in Mannheim for a fairly long time, where he carried out research on the consequences of the bombings of German towns by Allied forces in the Second World War. ‘The American air force has the exact data: how many bombs fell on which places? We combined those figures with personal data: dates and places of birth, income, illness, dates of death. Fascinating and sad at the same time: we found very clear effects. Something’s going on with this group of people. Their incomes are behind those of other groups, they stop working earlier, and die a little earlier. In short, it may be concluded that the bombs affected them in many ways.’
Van den Berg also carried out research that used Swedish data on child day-care facilities. With a smile, he concludes that this type of child care has a particularly positive impact on children. ‘School performance improves. And the psychosocial characteristics of these children develop in a positive manner: less aggression, more socialising, more cooperation. I must mention that Sweden has the best child-care facilities in the world: nearly free, with small groups of children, very skilled supervision and teachers, and fresh and healthy food. They also tried it in Canada, but it worked less well there.’ Van den Berg believes that high-quality affordable day-care is essential to disadvantaged groups in particular: ‘That also has to do with the importance of language. It is much easier to learn a language at a young age. Migrant children can take advantage of that in day-care. In that respect, the coronavirus pandemic was especially disadvantageous for this group: everything closed and everyone was confined to their situations at home.’
During the coronavirus period, Van den Berg was regularly to be found in the opinion pages of the Dutch newspapers, where he always advocated keeping the schools open. He emphatically claims: ‘Research indicates that one less year of education leads to 8% to 10% less income in the long term. The younger generation is being terribly disadvantaged here. In my opinion, that was handled far too carelessly. That realization is dawning only now.’
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