Denied beds, pain relief and contact with their babies: the women giving birth amid Covid-19

After Denisa’s son was born premature at 26 weeks she was unable to hold him, but spent as much time as possible near his incubator so he could get used to her voice. By the time he was well enough to be held by his mother, a state of emergency had been declared in Slovakia and Denisa was told to vacate her bed and leave the hospital to make way for Covid-19 patients.

The rush of patients never came, but strict rules meant she was unable to see her baby until he was discharged six weeks later. “Instead of a hug, I went home empty-handed only with my head full of questions,” she says. “Each day without my baby was taking away my strength and harming my mental health.”

Unable to have a birth companion, coerced into undergoing medical interventions, denied pain relief and separated from their newborns. This is the new reality for expectant and new mothers in many countries, as experts warn the coronavirus outbreak is leading to an infringement of women’s birth rights.

Slovakia has over 1,500 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 28 deaths from the virus. On 17 March, the day Denisa left the hospital, just 97 people had tested positive.

“Yet she was asked to vacate her bed for patients that never arrived,” says Zuzana Kriskova, chairwoman of Slovakia-based Women’s Circles, which advocates for childbirth rights.

Kriskova estimates that around 500 premature babies in Slovakia may have been affected so far by hospital rules banning parents from visiting since the outbreak.

“In some areas since last week you can go to the hairdresser but you can’t visit your sick baby in hospital. It’s absurd. Yet we know without a primary caregiver a baby will suffer. The risk of infection is higher, the risk of dying is higher, these babies have already been born premature,” says Kriskova.

Since the pandemic, Women’s Circles has been inundated with messages from expectant and new parents seeking support and advice about their rights. The organisation has criticised the government for allowing hospitals to enforce their own rules and for lack of clear national guidance.

Birth companions have been banned, and some providers have cancelled prenatal appointments and scans. In some hospitals women have been told they can’t have epidurals because the anaesthetists are reserved for Covid-19 patients.

“These rules have been been created out of fear of what might happen. In some cases, it amounts to prioritising patients that don’t exist over the basic human rights for pregnant women, new mothers and their babies,” says Kriskova.

The organisation Human Rights in Childbirth (HRiC) published a report this month documenting evidence that maternity healthcare is being undermined by the pandemic. Changes in practice aimed at controlling the spread of Covid-19 are disproportionately infringing on the human rights of women giving birth, it claims.

The World Health Organization recommends that women continue to have a companion during birth, yet partners have been banned in countries including Slovenia, Lithuania, Hungary, Poland and Germany at some types of births.

Daniela Drandic, one of the authors of the report, is based in Croatia where leading doctors have declared that pregnant women suspected of having Covid-19 should have a caesarean section and be separated from their baby, she says.

“Women are being kept from their newborns for 14 days if they are suspected of having the virus but these measures are not proportionate on the balance of risk. In Romania babies are removed from their mothers regardless of their Covid-19 status. Yet there have been reports of at least 10 newborns becoming infected from healthcare staff.”

In many countries community services are closed or being used as Covid isolation units so women have no choice but to give birth in hospitals. Marginalised groups have been worst affected, with some women refused care because they are believed to have the virus, the report finds.

In Macedonia, a pregnant Roma woman who was showing signs of infection and who had rushed to the emergency department was left outside for more than six hours while medics tested her for Covid-19. In India a woman who developed a severe lung infection died after being turned away from 10 hospitals including a Covid-19 facility in Hyderabad.

Elena Skoko, founder of the Obstetric Violence Observatory in Italy, says women were being abandoned giving birth.

Skoko says one woman who came from the “red zone” in Calabria was left to give birth in an isolated hospital room because it was assumed she had Covid-19 and would risk infecting others. Only by chance was the woman attended in the final moments of labour by a passing doctor who caught the baby – without gloves. The woman later tested negative for the virus.

In Poland, where there are 380 maternity wards, the Childbirth with Dignity Foundation says it has been recommended that Covid-19 positive mothers be separated from their newborns and breastfeeding should be treated with caution.

Advocates say that years of progress on improving women’s birth choices in some countries have been undone in just a few weeks.

Drandic says: “Covid is a watershed moment for birth rights. It will either magnify the existing bad policies around maternity care leading to positive change or could undo the progress made and turn the clock back 30 years.”

More than 4,500 people signed an open letter to the Slovakian government warning the separation of premature babies from their parents is a violation of human rights.

Women’s Circles, which drafted the letter, says that in the last week some hospitals had lifted the ban following public pressure. The Guardian contacted the Slovakian Department of Health but it declined to respond.

Denisa finally has her baby boy at home but she has been left wondering how he will be affected by the time they spent apart. “Is it really necessary to separate a mother from her child like this?” she asks.

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