TWI Issues: The Storm of Public Health Crisis

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Ananya Sankar

In the midst of a global pandemic taking the medical world by storm, women’s healthcare rights appear to be left in the dust. 

Staff shortages, overcrowded facilities and depleting resources are among the numerous problems that face health professionals tirelessly working to treat COVID-19 patients. But for pregnant and expecting mothers, only their worries are stacking up. Pregnant women around the world are navigating through one of the most harrowing challenges of their pregnancy journey, and healthcare facilities appear to be struggling to keep up. It begs the question: is the women’s healthcare system built strong enough to withstand a pandemic? 

As maternity wards are turned into isolated wards for COVID patients and hospital personnel are spread thinly, the BBC writes that many hospitals are struggling to find enough operating theaters for pregnancies. An added struggle is the time it takes to decontaminate facilities afterwards, which has slowed the vacancy of rooms. 

Dr. Leana Wen, former Baltimore health commissioner, expressed her concerns to NBC News about the availability of anesthesiologists in maternity wards, given their importance to the intubating process of COVID patients. 

An additional stressor is the idea of having to give birth alone, due to many hospitals’ “No Visitor” policies. It can be overwhelming for women to have a child alone in the midst of an already anxiety-driven environment, without the support of their partner by their side. 

On the other hand, social distancing protocols and “stay at home” procedures have popularized the idea of at-home births. However, birthing at home relies on the assistance of trained midwives and an efficient ambulance service, both of which have been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. The Guardian writes that The Royal College of Midwives found nearly 20% of midwife roles to be currently unfulfilled due to relocation of staff to other medical services or self-infection. The resulting staff shortages have trickled into hospitals, where The Guardian writes an expecting mother overheard her nurses discussing the closing of maternity wards due to thinning resources. 

A shortage of ambulances has exacerbated the problem in England, where communities planning on home births are being forced to consider the possibility of freebirthing, or giving birth without medical support. The Guardian writes that this could lead to a greater risk of complications. 

As far as newborn safety goes, The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists reassures, “Given current evidence, it is considered unlikely that if you have the virus it would cause problems with the baby’s development”. 

Adding to the surmounting number of public health crises facing women are a dangerous upsurge in domestic violence and mental health con icts. 

Self-isolation policies that enforce movement restrictions are breeding an increasing number of abuse victims, many of whom remain trapped at home with their perpetrator. According to The New York Times, self-help hotlines in China and Spain have found themselves receiving an overwhelming number of calls compared to before lockdown. The United Nations is urging that countries take immediate action to slow the rapid growth of domestic violence globally. 

But governments still remain largely unprepared to handle the fallout of new public health measures. Social distancing protocols have minimized access to lawyers, courts, police, women’s shelters, helplines and numerous other escape mechanisms for women living in abusive homes. With no tangible means of escape, services are doing their best to adapt to the pandemic’s conditions by expanding helpline workforces and reallocating women’s shelters to infection-free zones. 

The terrible phenomenon being coined as an uptake in “intimate terrorism” is slowly but surely being recognized as more and more nations begin to feel its presence. 

“We’ve been getting some very distressing calls, showing us clearly just how intense psychological as well as physical mistreatment can get when people are kept 24 hours a day together within a reduced space,” said domestic abuse survivor Ana Bella to the NYT. 

She points out another silent killer of the pandemic: mental health struggles. 

A poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that almost half the United States population feels that their mental health has been affected by public health conditions and protocols. Rates of stress and anxiety are reportedly higher among women, and forced homestay appears to breed loneliness and depressive behavior due to a disruption in everyday routine. 

Accompanying drastic increases in stress are a slew of coping mechanisms such as an increase in alcohol consumption or overeating, however health officials warn to supplement this destructive behavior with more positive tools such as communicating with friends and family or picking up a new hobby. 

The Psychiatric Times recommends using a “positive, constructive way so that the best features of the person’s identity…reinforce valuable reserves of stamina, resilience, and authenticity in the face of adversity.” During a quarantine, the best method seems to be staying connected with loved ones. 

Hundreds of female health personnel are taking initiative each day to put others’ lives before their own. Women form 67% of the health workforce globally, and are holding up the backbone of our response to this crisis. 

So despite a number of public health crises facing women during this epidemic, there are even more ways that we can overcome these challenges as a community. It’s time to weather the storm together. 

Ananya Sankar is a journalism student at Northeastern University in Boston, and has an avid interest in women’s studies. She has previously interned at the Mumbai tabloid Mid-Day and worked as an editor for her town’s local newspaper. She was also mentored by New York Times reporters Bruce Weber and Jan Benzel during a summer program in Oxford, England, where she gained a passion for exploring untold stories.

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