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Denied beds, pain relief and contact with their babies: the women giving birth amid Covid-19


The Guardian, 28. 5. 2020

Following reports worldwide, experts are warning that pandemic is pushing back progress on prenatal and maternity care

After Denisa’s son was born premature at 26 weeks she was unable to hold him, but spent as much time as possible near his incubator so he could get used to her voice. By the time he was well enough to be held by his mother, a state of emergency had been declared in Slovakia and Denisa was told to vacate her bed and leave the hospital to make way for Covid-19 patients.

The rush of patients never came, but strict rules meant she was unable to see her baby until he was discharged six weeks later. “Instead of a hug, I went home empty-handed only with my head full of questions,” she says. “Each day without my baby was taking away my strength and harming my mental health.”

Unable to have a birth companion, coerced into undergoing medical interventions, denied pain relief and separated from their newborns. This is the new reality for expectant and new mothers in many countries, as experts warn the coronavirus outbreak is leading to an infringement of women’s birth rights.

Slovakia has over 1,500 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 28 deaths from the virus. On 17 March, the day Denisa left the hospital, just 97 people had tested positive.

“Yet she was asked to vacate her bed for patients that never arrived,” says Zuzana Kriskova, chairwoman of Slovakia-based Women’s Circles, which advocates for childbirth rights. Kriskova estimates that around 500 premature babies in Slovakia may have been affected so far by hospital rules banning parents from visiting since the outbreak.

“In some areas since last week you can go to the hairdresser but you can’t visit your sick baby in hospital. It’s absurd. Yet we know without a primary caregiver a baby will suffer. The risk of infection is higher, the risk of dying is higher, these babies have already been born premature,” says Kriskova.

Since the pandemic, Women’s Circles has been inundated with messages from expectant and new parents seeking support and advice about their rights. The organisation has criticised the government for allowing hospitals to enforce their own rules and for lack of clear national guidance.

Birth companions have been banned, and some providers have cancelled prenatal appointments and scans. In some hospitals women have been told they can’t have epidurals because the anaesthetists are reserved for Covid-19 patients. “These rules have been been created out of fear of what might happen. In some cases, it amounts to prioritising patients that don’t exist over the basic human rights for pregnant women, new mothers and their babies,” says Kriskova.

The organisation Human Rights in Childbirth (HRiC) published a report this month documenting evidence that maternity healthcare is being undermined by the pandemic. Changes in practice aimed at controlling the spread of Covid-19 are disproportionately infringing on the human rights of women giving birth, it claims.

The World Health Organization recommends that women continue to have a companion during birth, yet partners have been banned in countries including Slovenia, Lithuania, Hungary, Poland and Germany at some types of births.

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Hannah Summers


See also:


Further information of WHO related to the COVID-19 pandemic: