The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the structure and function of healthcare systems all across the globe as a great influx of patients to hospitals has led to a strain on medical personnel and funding. Some of the greatest losses that healthcare systems are taking around the world due to this COVID-19 strain are the reduction or the complete elimination of certain specialties or services for a specific population. In Zimbabwe, a country in Southern Africa with a population of around 14.4 million, pregnant women and new mothers have suffered from a lack of quality maternal healthcare.
Pregnant women and new mothers in Zimbabwe face a difficult challenge, not only because the funding of a lot of maternal healthcare units has been depleted, but because of the dangers in commuting to the health centers or hospitals.
The lockdown in Zimbabwe due to the pandemic has been strictly enforced and has inspired an increase in violence on the streets. If a woman cannot find a medication or reach a local pharmacy during its newly limited hours, she may have to travel past checkpoints and on streets that contain a higher amount of police brutality than normal. There are several accounts of women deciding to stay home as it would be a greater risk to travel.
The restricted travel limits medical attention for pregnant women (check-ups and childbirth) and postpartum treatment (both physical and mental). Without the ability to contact people personally or to travel for help, women who have just given birth have a higher risk of postpartum depression and of physical complications as they live their lives in quarantine.
There has been an uptick in violence in the new pandemic-stricken world, especially for the women of Zimbabwe. Police patrolling the streets are often violent and “have not been sympathetic to pregnant women, insisting the need for a clearance letter from the police sanctioning movement.”
Additionally, pregnant women and new mothers at home are subject to more domestic violence. The restriction of movement makes leaving an abusive situation even more difficult. In combination with the aforementioned inhibition in the disbursement of contraceptives, assault in the home is a cause of an increase in unplanned pregnancies.
Because of the fear of COVID-19 transmission within hospitals, women in Zimbabwe are asked to come into the hospitals only when they are deep into their labor and nearly giving birth outside of the hospital doors. Pregnant women who have started labor are often not permitted to enter health facilities because they are not close enough to delivery. When they do enter the hospital, mothers are often mistreated — not being permitted to have a companion or to stay long enough after giving birth.
This mistreatment and inaccessibility lead to an increase in complications for mothers and children during birth as they often arrive too late to the hospital for proper delivery or they give birth at home. Due to the mistreatment and lack of accessibility, women may also have unsafe “underground” abortions, which can lead to severe health complications.
Lack of Resources
If mothers can reach a healthcare facility, they often do not receive the treatment they need because of a lack of resources. Health facilities and clinics in Zimbabwe have drained supplies and funding during the pandemic. Physicians can no longer give out contraceptives or educate women on family planning due to a shortage. Family health planning services also had to cut down their educational programs. The lack of education and accessibility has increased the amount of unplanned teenage pregnancies as well as an increase in maternal mortality.
Though there have been many discouraging events for maternal healthcare in Zimbabwe, there has been a recognition of the events that are unfolding and several organizations are making great progress in fighting for maternal healthcare rights.
The White Ribbon Alliance (WRA) is a nonprofit, international coalition that fights for “reproductive, maternal and newborn health” among other rights relating to women’s freedom. This organization has created powerful campaigns in the wake of COVID-19’s impact on maternal care such as Respectful Maternal Care, which helps to educate others about women’s health and the rights they are entitled to when giving birth. This campaign can help stop the mistreatment of women and keep them safe during treatment and delivery.
Maternal healthcare in Zimbabwe faces many hurdles in becoming is safe and accessible. Childbirth and postpartum care have suffered because of the strict environment in the streets and healthcare facilities that the coronavirus has brought on. With organizations like the WRA, these women can gain access to the quality healthcare they need.
– Jennifer Long