The list of a first-time mother’s worries can be long – but doesn’t usually include whether her partner will be allowed to stay by her side as she gives birth. But that’s the situation Sophie Higginson, 36, is facing as she prepares for the arrival of her baby in July. ‘My midwife had said that I shouldn’t pin my hopes on a home birth, given what was going on,’ explains Sophie, a hair and make-up artist. ‘I was gutted to hear this. My anxieties started to creep in over the next few days and I wondered how I would cope with going into a hospital to have my baby.’ Researching her options, she was not reassured.
Already, across the country, women have been told to attend antenatal appointments alone. In recent days, St George’s Hospital in south London was among those issuing new rules about who women can have with them as they give birth – restricting visitors to, in their own stark words, ‘Only one birth partner in labour and no one, not even the partner, will be admitted to the antenatal or postnatal wards.’
Meanwhile, the Royal College of Midwives has reported that the shortage of midwives on NHS maternity units has doubled since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, warning that it’s ‘exposing the gaps that already exist in maternity services’.
No wonder, then, that some mothers-to- be fear the measures may become even stricter. Sophie is one of 380,000-plus who have signed a petition to protect the right of birthing mothers to have a partner present through labour. ‘My concern is that the NHS is so stretched right now that the support you need throughout your labour will not be there,’ she says. ‘At least if you have a partner or loved one with you, they can be your support, your voice and strength when you need it.’
Coronavirus has led to stark new challenges but it has also brought into sharp focus inequalities and dysfunction in our society
And her experience highlights just one of the ways in which the effects of the pandemic are being felt by women. The leading abortion provider, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), recently warned that abortion services were ‘buckling’ as self-isolating staff meant a quarter of its clinics were closed. The Department of Health and Social Care last week confirmed abortion pills could be prescribed remotely to be taken by women at home – but only after it had U-turned on an earlier announcement of the policy, saying it was published in error.
Women are also having their fertility treatments abruptly cancelled. The UK’s regulatory body for fertility treatment, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), said it was guiding clinics to ‘plan to stop treatments over the next three weeks, allowing patients to complete any cycle they have started’. Medical experts have even recommended people avoid becoming pregnant during the pandemic as a ‘precautionary measure’.
But it is not just in terms of healthcare that women are being hit. Many women’s jobs are placing them at risk of contracting the virus – 77% of the NHS workforce are women, among them pregnant women categorised as ‘vulnerable’. However, some NHS trusts and even departments have interpreted that official advice differently and there are reports of pregnant women who remain in face-to-face roles.
At the same time, women are not always safe staying at home: reported cases of domestic violence have tripled in some countries practising social distancing. Here in the UK, Sandra Horley, chief executive of national domestic abuse charity Refuge, says, ‘1.6 million women experienced domestic abuse last year, and self-isolation has the potential to aggravate pre-existing abusive behaviours by perpetrators.’
As women normally provide the lion’s share of care within families, the closure of schools is more likely to curtail their work opportunities. And when the business shutdown turns into a full-blown recession, women are set to be hit harder – already more likely to be in lower-paid jobs or working part-time. All this explains why UN Secretary-General António Guterres has said of the crisis, ‘The world’s women are disproportionately carrying the burden at home and in the wider economy.’
Despite that, women are less likely to be in the rooms where decisions are being made about how it’s tackled – a fact strikingly clear even in the Government press conferences, where the politicians and officials updating us are, overwhelmingly, male. Last week, MPs on the Women and Equalities Committee launched an inquiry into the ‘disproportionate’ impact that the virus – and, tellingly, ‘measures to tackle it’ – is having on various groups. (Because, of course, it’s not just women being adversely affected in unforeseen ways; a crisis tends to deepen existing inequalities.)
Yet anyone raising concerns publicly is likely to be told that ‘the only thing that matters right now is addressing the virus’. However, things are rarely so simple. Medics have pointed out that when, for instance, resources for reproductive health in West Africa were diverted to the emergency response to the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak, it contributed to a rise in mothers there dying. Alternatively, women raising concerns may well be pointed to statistics that indicate men are more likely to die from coronavirus. Why is not clear; it may be men are more likely to have a pre-existing condition that leads to worse outcomes. But that doesn’t render all other issues unimportant.
‘If anything, this reinforces precisely why looking at the gendered impacts are so vitally important,’ Mandu Reid, leader of the Women’s Equality Party, tells Grazia. ‘Coronavirus has led to stark new challenges and realities for all of us in a matter of weeks, but it has also brought into sharp focus inequalities and dysfunction in our society that existed long before anyone had heard of Covid-19.’ She’s among those calling for urgent measures, including the extension of telemedical (remote) abortions to Northern Ireland and the wider use of Domestic Violence Protective Orders, removing perpetrators from the home during lockdown.
Tackling the health crisis does not mean we need to ignore the uncomfortable truths it is laying bare. There is a lot being said these days about how, when the world emerges from the worst of the pandemic, we can rebuild it in a better way. Maybe we could start by listening to women.
Click [here](http://change.org/p/nhs-protect-the- right-to-have-a-birth-partner-during-covid-19) to sign the petition to protect the right of women to have a partner present during childbirth.
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