At 28 weeks, Bolu, a 30-year-old Nigerian woman is afraid of going to the hospital for antenatal care. She wonders if she'd like to have her baby in the hospital; the space which was once a safe facility, might not be so anymore. She's not scared for nothing – in the early months of the virus, several private hospitals were shut down due to exposure to Covid-19. They were forced to stop accepting patients because some members of staff were exposed to the virus. Government hospitals, which did not shut down, were closed to normal cases, and only attended to the emergency cases. This understandably made several expectant mothers apprehensive about going to hospital.
Bolu is one of many women who are experiencing the same apprehension. From continent to continent, one major fact holds true: women are worried about how to take care of themselves and their families and protect them from the impact of the virus. They are questioning whether they should continue to go for antenatal visits, and they are worried about the quality of life for their babies, and to a large extent, they are worried about breastfeeding and whether it is the safest option. A joint report estimates that Nigeria has approximately 58, 000 maternal deaths annually, accounting for 19% of maternal deaths globally.
Maternal and child needs should be incorporated into the new scheme of things and improved upon. As of now, Nigeria has recorded about 183,000 cases and 2,200 Covid-19 deaths, making it a country with one of the highest case rates in Africa. For many Nigerian women, this global context has done nothing to allay their fears.
The lockdown, which was announced by the government to curb the spread of Covid-19 from city to city, exacerbated the difficulty of getting periodic medical checkups because only essential services personnel were allowed to move about.
"I have not been going for my antenatal care because I'm scared of possible infection. If not for my sake, for my baby's. We never know who is infected and who is not these days," said Olanipekun, a 25-year-old in her first trimester. "I'm just taking my drugs, ramping up my hygiene and using ‘Insha’Allah’. It's better to be safe than sorry."
This shouldn't be so. The risk of maternal death is usually higher during labor, birth and the first 24 hours thereafter. And for women who do not go for antenatal care? It's a bit dicey. All pregnant women should have a right to a safe and respectful childbirth experience, and this should not be taken away because of the pandemic.
"I have been feeding my baby with formula. Because I know the benefits of breastfeeding, I worry for my baby's health, but I do not want to risk it. Baby formula is a stressful alternative, and it is also very expensive" says Dupe, a 25-year-old mother.
Breastfeeding, if done in the first six months, has a significant effect on the child's survival rate. Fortunately, no data indicates the virus can be transmitted via breast milk. However, those suspected with the virus should take precautions while breastfeeding their baby, such as wearing a mask and washing their hands before feeding their little one.
With regards to the vaccine and maternal health care, there are currently no risks involved with receiving the vaccine while pregnant. "There were no adverse side effects for me. Just a headache and fever which cleared up in three days. When I delivered my baby, he wasn't affected in any way either." Sandra, a 27-year-old mother shared.
Although there is still more to learn about this novel disease, one thing is certain: mitigating the risk of this virus on women would require us to consistently safeguard and protect maternal health. Throughout pregnancy and childbirth, we must guard our women through this global crisis. While we reinforce the healthcare system, we must practice individual healthcare – handing out healthy coping mechanisms to everyone until the coast is clear and the storm is over.
As the world struggles to adapt with the effects of a pandemic, women and children need to be protected now more than ever.