The coronavirus pandemic puts pregnant women at risk – let’s take care of them
Mariam, 35, is pregnant in a time of uncertainty. Every day, she spends hours on social media trying to get answers on how to protect herself and her unborn baby. Mariam worries that she may get infected with COVID-19 when she goes to a health care facility, the market or even at home. She is confused by the overload of information about the spread of the coronavirus, much of it from non-official sources and accompanied by rumors that stoke fear and worsen her anxiety.
As a pregnant woman, Mariam is also concerned about how the virus may affect the hormonal and physical changes to a woman’s body that take place during pregnancy, including on her respiratory and immune systems. She is aware that social distancing and self-isolation are both crucial to prevent the spread of the disease, but this situation is a nightmare for her. Mariam is completely overwhelmed by having her three sons and her husband staying at home, on top of her usual chores.
Mariam’s anxiety is legitimate. Sexual and reproductive health is a significant public health issue during epidemics, and woman face additional challenges that make them even more vulnerable to the disease. In many societies, women are not only expected to be caregivers for the immediate and extended family; they also clean and cook for everyone, putting them at more risk of getting sick.
While there is no current evidence of adverse effects on pregnant women from COVID-19, pregnancy itself is nevertheless a risk factor for the immune system.
To make matters even worse, as more countries lock down to contain the spread of COVID-19, more breadwinners will likely lose their jobs. Extended home confinement and despair over the future can lead to gender-based violence.
In this time of uncertainty for everyone, we need to protect women and girls. They cannot be left behind, no matter how bleak the situation becomes. The pandemic is likely to compound existing gender inequalities in countries globally, and the Arab States region is no exception.
There is ample evidence that crises increase the risk of gender-based violence and sexual exploitation. To counter that threat, the vulnerability of women and girls must be at the center of national and global responses.
Safe pregnancies and childbirth right now depend on functioning health systems, with 24/7 access to emergency obstetric care and strict adherence to infection prevention and control measures. Surveillance and response protocols need to include disaggregated data on sex, age, gender and pregnancy status.
To protect pregnant women, health facilities must ensure that women stay safe from infection when getting antenatal care, delivery care, post-natal care and family planning services. Emergency obstetric care services in particular may be hit hardest, with limited facilities to isolate women in labour and newborns. We cannot downplay the importance of physically separating areas for pregnant women and for treating respiratory illnesses.
Finally, let’s not forget to offer mental health and psychosocial support for pregnant women struggling to deal with the hardships of curfews and quarantines.
UNFPA, the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency, along with the World Health Organization and other UN sister organizations, is working round the clock with all its partners to respond to the pandemic. Our stepped-up response to prevent infections and support treatment includes ensuring that only correct messages based on facts reach the population, and standing up against discrimination and stigma. Both are crucial to defend people’s well-being, safety, dignity and human rights. UNFPA is also concerned about the uninterrupted provision of family planning information and services like contraceptives as global supply chains are disrupted due to COVID-19.
We salute all health workers, including midwives and OB-GYNs, in this challenging time. Women, who represent 70 per cent of the global health care workforce, are our heroes.
As the world prepares for the dire economic consequences of the coronavirus outbreak, we cannot ignore its current and future impact on women and girls’ wellbeing. Any stimulus program must take this into account.
UNFPA realizes that the world is at a critical crossroads in human history, one in which the only way forward is to promote collective solidarity and global cooperation. Let’s work together make sure women and girls are not an afterthought in our battle against this invisible enemy.
Dr. Luay Shabaneh is the Regional Director for Arab States in UNFPA, the UN agency for sexual and reproductive health.