Resources are often diverted away from maternal health care during crises, and the COVID-19 pandemic is making it increasingly difficult to provide adequate maternal care worldwide.
Although Kenya does not have many confirmed positive COVID-19 cases, the organization Child.org is starting to face obstacles as it tries to continue to support mothers through its maternal care program in the country.
Kenya has one of the world’s highest maternal mortality rates and one in 26 babies die before they reach their first birthday. But studies show that exposure to women’s groups in low-income countries can reduce neonatal mortality by 20%.
Child.org’s Pregnant Women’s Groups in Meru, Kenya help equip expectant mothers in the rural area with the information and resources they need to keep themselves and their babies safe and healthy.
Martina Gant, head of programming at Child.org, shared with Global Citizen how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the organization’s ability to continue crucial initiatives with limited resources.
Global Citizen: How has the COVID-19 coronavirus impacted Child.org’s maternal health project in Meru, Kenya?
Martina Gant: The biggest impact that the COVID-19 outbreak has had is that we can't run our groups. We are not able to get the women together anymore and haven't been for a few weeks now. We don't have a full lockdown here in Kenya. The government is doing what it can to prevent the spread. [But] getting people together in groups is not a sensible activity right now.
We've also got the issue around the overall costs and impact to the organization. We are relying on income from UK festivals and festivals in Europe, and many of those are not going to go ahead. We also are heavily reliant on fundraising events. If we're not able to run those on top of all of the damage to other activities, we are set to lose between 50 and 80% of our income.
How are these women at risk when the groups aren't happening?
We ran some surveys in Nairobi with some of our participants from a previous project.
We've been in contact with those women and they were telling us that they are not going to clinics or they're scared to go to clinics because of the potential risk of infection.
Just in the papers this week, we learned that in-hospital delivery rates are down by over 50%, while immunization clinics are down by over two-thirds.
In Mombasa, healthcare workers are being moved from maternity to critical care. We're seeing the same in Meru.
This isn't just Meru, but health care workers haven't been provided with the PPE (personal protective equipment) that they were expecting, meaning that they're not feeling safe.
If there's a suspected case, there have been multiple cases of healthcare workers fleeing health facilities because they're worried about the risk of infection to themselves and the families. On top of an already strained health system, we're seeing that access to services is becoming more challenging, and the quality of care if patients do seek those services is reduced.
Community health volunteers in the past couple of days have been visiting 100 women who delivered their babies since the suspension came in and running surveys with them, but also providing them with the government COVID-19 health and sanitation updates.
We provided the community health volunteers with their own PPE as well, because as far as we've seen, that hasn't been provided outside of the immediate first response to the COVID-19 crisis. There's an additional risk to mom and baby and to the health worker in terms of transmission.
Really good work has been done across Kenya and across the world, to improve the maternal mortality rates and neonatal mortality rates. But [the current situation] is really concerning for any of us working in this field. We've got the direct impacts of COVID-19 but the secondary impact is really concerning.
Can you tell me how you're using the Mama Tips SMS platform to keep providing pregnant women with resources in a safe way?
It allows women to ask questions and puts them directly in touch with their frontline health workers. We can encourage them to take themselves to medical centers, but also we can follow up and we can do home visits with our community health volunteers.
This is going to allow us to continue contact with women and also to recruit women on to the project so that when we are able to get groups back together, we can do this kickoff very quickly.
How would your organization like support from the international community to continue ensuring that pregnant women have access to the resources they need during the COVID-19 pandemic?
We need support, we need the global community to recognize the value that organizations like ours have.
This is a really tough situation around, for everyone...for people in isolation across the globe.
In the vast majority of countries, there is food available. There's economic support, there's a recognition from the government that further assistance is needed. But for communities like those that we're working with, there isn't that, and very soon people are going to start to go hungry. It's going to become really challenging to support themselves and their families without putting them themselves and their health at risk.
It's just really important to recognize that despite how hard this is for those of us from countries like the UK and the US, we are lucky in terms of what we still have, and to not forget those people in those countries where those pullbacks and those welfare systems are not in place.
We got to the point with this project where the feedback from women was incredible.
There's real misinformation and myths surrounding maternal health in these communities. And it's only with access to reliable information, science-based information, that we're going to be able to make real inroads with maternal deaths and neonatal deaths. It's absolutely critical that access to information doesn't stop given this crisis.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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