By Wendy Sloane
In a stark warning to expectant mums, UNICEF said that the COVID-19 crisis is “putting millions of pregnant women and their babies at great risk”.
In a report released earlier earlier this week, the global organisation for children said that 116 million children are expected to be born in the nine months since the “pandemic was recognised”, and called on governments to “maintain lifesaving services for pregnant women and newborns”.
The report said that many health professionals have been forced to leave maternity services to cater to COVID-19 patients, and that there is also a lack of equipment. Health centres, it said, are “overwhelmed”.
“Millions of mothers all over the world embarked on a journey of parenthood in the world as it was. They now must prepare to bring a life into the world as it has become – a world where expecting mothers are afraid to go to health centres for fear of getting infected, or missing out on emergency care due to strained health services and lockdowns,” Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director, was quoted as saying.
“It is hard to imagine how much the coronavirus pandemic has recast motherhood.”
An anxious time
Georgia-Blue Townshend is 32 weeks’ pregnant with her first child and hopes to have a planned C-section birth at Colchester General Hospital at the end of June. She has mixed emotions over the hospital choice: her 91-year-old grandfather was sent there after a fall, and although he received “amazing” care he caught coronavirus whilst there.
He was eventually moved to Harwich Hospital, where he passed away from the virus in April.
“I am worried about the lack of PPE there rather than the lack of staff at the moment, as I have not had any experience of lack of staff in the maternity ward as of yet,” said the 27-year-old secondary school teacher from Colchester.
“In the maternity ward I witnessed a few times members of staff trying to locate some more masks and aprons – especially aprons – so they are able to change them with every patient.
“They could not find any more and I heard they only had one box left. This meant that they were having to wipe down their aprons instead of changing them, which is obviously not as effective.”
Townshend said she is “quite scared” about the birth, and has asked for a C-Section due to a “low pain threshold”, gestational diabetes and clinical anxiety. In addition, she has been told that her baby is quite large.
“The hospital have been amazing but the whole thing scares me,” she told the London Economic, adding that her partner, John, has offered to self-isolate for two weeks before her due date so he can be in hospital with her as long as possible.
“He is being incredibly supportive and is quite upset about the fact he cannot come to scans or appointments with me but obviously understands why,” she said, adding that she is also doing a fundraiser, which ends on her due date, for the Colchester Maternity Unit.
Testing for COVID-19
Pregnant women are no more susceptible to catching the virus than others, according to the NHS, and there is “no evidence” to suggest that women may suffer from an increased miscarriage risk. Transmission from mother to baby is “probable”, although there have been few recorded incidents of this.
The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) says that pregnant women are classified as “vulnerable” by the country’s chief medical officer. This is not because they are more likely to catch the virus, but because pregnancy can alter how the body fights off severe viral infections, in some rare cases.
Because of this, the World Health Organization has recommended that pregnant women who show COVID-19 symptoms get priority to be tested. But that doesn’t always seem to be the case here.
In March, Naveen Akhund began to suffer from diarrhoea, vomiting, a bad cough and general lethargy. The next day her son Noah, now 22 months old, came down with the same symptoms. Since the whole family had already had flu shots, she thought they might have COVID-19.
“I literally felt like I was dying,” said the 34-year-old self-employed HR consultant from Richmond, south-west London, who gave birth to daughter Nina a few weeks later, on April 4th. She called the 111 helpline four times, but was told every time to wait seven days and see how her symptoms progressed.
“I told them I was pregnant and that I had a really bad cough. When I would lie down it felt like I couldn’t breathe; I actually had to sleep sitting up,” she recalled. “I had never felt that bad. I called and told them I was pregnant and that it was getting worse, but they kept telling me to wait.”
Symptoms were so severe that Naveen cancelled an ante-natal appointment, but still nobody told her to go to hospital. “I got the impression nobody knew what they were doing, the phone lines were set up just for the sake of being set up,” she told the London Economic.
When she started showing signs of labour – after her symptoms had finally disappeared – Naveen went to Kingston Hospital on her own, as husband Muaz was looking after their son. “I was scared to touch anything in the cab and it was very anxiety-inducing,” she said. Muaz arrived when she was in full-on labour as his sister came to look after their son.
“In middle of night I was crying out for an epidural – my catheter had done nothing,” she said. “Nobody came for an hour. I did feel alone.”
The good news is that breastmilk probably does not carry the virus, according to the RCOG, so new mums can breastfeed regardless of whether or not they show coronavirus symptoms.
But being encouraged to breastfeed is a small victory: pregnancy during the pandemic is something most expectant mums could never have imagined.
“Being pregnant and navigating through the minefield of hormones is a challenging enough, but adding self-isolation into the mix brings an even greater challenge, so it’s no wonder that new and expectant mothers are suffering at this time,” said Neev Spencer, Maternal Mental Health Campaigner and mum-of-two.
“Pregnancies are usually the time we dream of baby moons, baby showers, and showing off your bump to your nearest and dearest as you eagerly await the arrival of your bundle of joy. But lockdown pregnancies couldn’t be further from this.
“Staying indoors for most of the day, unable to see your loved ones and close friends, with your perfect pre-baby plans dashed is far from ideal.”
For Megan Hanson, 29, a senior manager at Save the Children from London who is expecting her first child on June 11, the anxiety lessened once she discovered that rules had changed, and that her partner could still be there for the birth. He is still not allowed to stay overnight in the hospital.
“I hadn’t really been fixating on the labour as the child had been the focus, but the removal of something I thought was a certainty became all-consuming and caused my anxiety to spike,” she said.
Doing National Childbirth Trust classes online instead of in person, not being able to swim during the pregnancy and keeping away from her family has taken its toll. Having to buy baby clothes and expensive baby furniture online, instead of browsing at second-hand markets, also makes her feel that she has missed out on some rites of passage new mums used to take for granted.
“It’s an odd time to be pregnant,” she said. “We left uni, there was a recession, then the market crash and Brexit, now COVID. My generation have had one thing after another. It feels like my life is being dictated by everything else.
“I feel much better but it’s a really weird time to be bringing a baby into the world.”