The devastating effects of COVID-19 on maternal health in Zimbabwe

Patients at the maternity ward of Reproductive Health Uganda's clinic in Mbale. Women can get antenatal and after birth care.

Rutendo* was getting close to her due date when the government announced the 21-day lockdown to tackle COVID-19. She stays in a farming area, 35 kilometres from the nearest healthcare facility, and her chances of getting an ambulance in time for emergency care were always minimal. Rutendo’s older sister died five years ago from complications in pregnancy and her mother, not wanting to take any chances, sent Rutendo to the nearest district hospital to ‘sit and wait’ for a safe delivery before the lockdown came into effect on 30 March. Rutendo delivered a bouncing baby girl the very next day. In pain, she expected to stay at least two days under observation, but she was discharged after one night when the lockdown began.

Within two weeks her baby fell sick. Rutendo’s mother thought that the baby needed stomach medication. Rutendo had heard that soldiers were beating people up on the streets to enforce the lockdown and she was afraid to go and buy medication, but her baby was in pain so she gathered courage to go to the nearest shopping centre in Norton, 40 km west of Harare.

Upon arrival Rutendo found that the pharmacy had reduced its operating hours and was closed. She returned the next day, but the pharmacy did not have the medication she was looking for and she was advised to go to Harare. Rutendo told Amnesty International that she was afraid to travel to Harare because of the numerous check points and the risk of police brutality, given that she had no documentation to justify her journey. When community members advised her to travel with her baby as proof, she told Amnesty that she said “how do I travel with a child who is less than 6 weeks to Harare just to get medication. I will be placing the child in more danger.”

Many new mothers are now facing impossible decisions like this due to the pandemic. As well as travel restrictions and medication shortages, some are cut off from the women relatives they rely on for postpartum support. Rutendo explained, that culturally older women’s support is a critical support for new mothers.  Rutendo praised her mum for taking care of her, cooking nutritious meals, nursing her and helping take care of the newborn whilst she is recovering. Research indicates that social support can help prevent postpartum depression. Countless other new mothers do not have the benefit of having their mothers or other relative nearby who can give them the levant support during this lockdown. Isolation has meant that some new mothers are alone, without any help or social support.