from mood swings, nausea and fatigue to heartburn, cravings and aversions, constipation and so on, pregnancy has it all. It is a challenging period for a woman as she goes through a bundle of mental and physical changes, but it is also a time for excitement and anticipation. According to UNICEF, globally, an estimated 116 million babies will be born under the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic and almost a quarter of them - approximately 29 million - will be born in South Asia, with 5 million just in Pakistan. Facing an already emotional and physically exhausting experience, many new mothers and newborns will be greeted by new harsh realities of a novel virus outbreak.
Farwa is a 28-year-old housewife recently gave birth for the third time. But this time around, she faced a new sort of anxiety. “During pregnancy, my feet get swollen and my head starts spinning coupled with body aches. And it’s not just the physical movement that becomes harder, but the ability to think straight pretty much goes away too. And the last thing I wanted during my pregnancy was the fear of contracting a potentially deadly virus that could not only affect me but the new life inside me,” she shares.
Before the coronavirus, expectant mothers relied on support from family and friends to help them recover from painful deliveries and adapt to unpredictable life with a newborn. Now, many parents have to go with it alone and make gut-wrenching decisions. “We had to let our maids go due to the coronavirus threat and now I am wholly responsible for the cooking, cleaning and washing. My three-year-old daughter bugs me all day. She wants me to continue with the same activities that we did before the pandemic. She misses household gatherings, especially hangouts with her grandparents. My eldest daughter is five, but she somewhat understands the situation. However, she is just a child and she too gets frustrated and restless if she doesn’t have something fun to do. Seeing this, my husband and I have to dedicate a lot of our time to entertain her and bring her anything that would keep her engaged. Luckily, my husband helped me mediate and keep things under control. Yet, all this workload had gotten me really stressed out and irritable all the time. During my trimesters, I would yell at my daughters and husband very often due to the stress,” recounts Farwa.
Narrating a similar story, 30-year-old Sarah Naeem struggled to cope with her pregnancy this time around, given that there was a lockdown and she couldn’t step out to distract herself. “Except for the occasional visits to the gynaecologist, I didn’t step out for five months until the delivery. For someone who is social and always out and about every day, this was really hard for me. I didn’t even go out for groceries or met my family,” expresses Sarah. “On top of being a mother to a year old toddler, I couldn’t even get a maid just so I could avoid a possible carrier of the coronavirus. It was difficult and depressing for me, but it was necessary for my baby’s well-being,” she adds.
Stress is a common feeling during pregnancy - since there are physical discomforts and other changes in your daily life - but too much stress can prove harmful for your baby. “We, pregnant women, already go through depression and have constant hormonal changes, so dealing with Covid-19 just adds to everything we go through. In such circumstances, the only thing you can do is take all the precautions possible and do your best to stay positive and avoid stress,” reflects Sarah from her experience.
While Sarah found a way to stay sane during this time, some found it harder to handle their situation due to mental duress. While the lack of human interaction has given rise to anxiety and depression, the uncertainty of the virus has instilled a constant sense of fear in expecting mothers. 37-year-old Bakhtawar, mother of two, felt the same apprehension during her recent pregnancy period. “Although my husband and I confined ourselves to our home, some things were absolutely unavoidable like the doctor’s visits. While people with coronavirus - mild or severe - must be going through a frightening psychological ordeal, those who hadn’t contracted the virus were going through a psychological plight of their own. Given the nature of the virus, the social distancing and the constantly disinfecting oneself has left people paranoid. Each visit to the doctor sent shivers down my spine,” tells Bakhtawar. “I took extra care by wearing gloves and carrying extra pairs, wearing a double mask and keeping an extra one with me. As per hospital policy, it was mandatory for me to get my Covid-19 test done before the operation. The test itself is unsettling as a swab was inserted deep through your nasal cavity. Thankfully, the hospital followed all SOPs and had different OTs for Covid and non-Covid patients. Moreover, my attendant and I had to wear a mask at all times, which we did through and through.”
As the restrictions ease in most parts of the country, mothers have to be even more careful as the threat still lingers. “There are people who think that this virus is nothing but a propaganda. They think there is nothing to worry about, which is not true. In times like these, expecting mothers should take extra care like wearing masks properly - not on the chin or under the chin, or just covering the mouth and leaving the nose out.
I always changed immediately after I came from the doctor’s visit and practised staying calm; because more than the virus, the stress would have had a bad impact on the baby. So, no matter how the situation was around me, I tried to distract myself from negative thoughts and stayed close to my immediate family. I also found the little joys of life by doing things that made me happy,” says Bakhtawar.
A major cause of concern for expectant parents is that if a mother is potentially infected with the virus, will the baby also contract the virus? How can parents protect their newborns from the novel virus? Covid-19 is an evolving pandemic, and although the virus has been a serious health threat for months, we still know very little about its effect on pregnant women and infants. Most medical experts are relying on the knowledge they gleaned from historical epidemics. Dr Amna Riaz, a Gynaecologist at Indus Hospital, Lahore, sheds light on the matter, “Though there is no evidence to suggest that the newborns of those mothers, who have the virus, will automatically be suffering from Covid-19; still there is a great chance of babies contracting the virus once they are born. They may acquire it during breastfeeding or at any time when the mother is taking care of them. As things stand, some women suffering from the virus have gone into labour well before the expected date. It is also established that flu during pregnancy increases the risk of low birth weight. Similarly, having high fever during pregnancy can lead to the chance of birth defects in babies. As with other respiration-related viruses, pregnant women have theoretically higher probability to get the virus. Pregnancy causes quite a lot of changes in one’s body leaving the immune system compromised, which means expecting mothers are pretty much walking on thin ice.”
Talking about taking adequate precautions at the hospital, Dr Amna elucidates, “When Covid-19 was at its peak, doctors had to follow strict SOPs which included getting tested frequently. Whether it was normal delivery or a C-section surgery, everyone including the doctors, patients and the attendant was tested prior to the procedure. Moreover, there is only one attendant allowed with the patient and no visitors are allowed in the hospital. We made a system in which doctors were divided in two batches and each batch was supposed to work on an alternating week. This way, if a doctor contracted the virus, they could figure out the symptoms in their week off. I myself made sure to shower at the hospital’s hostel before heading home as I feared for the safety of my children and elderly at home as well.” In case of a Covid positive test for the expecting mother, she is kept in quarantine and so is the newborn. “I’ve only come across 2-3 cases where the mother came out with a positive Covid-19 test. So, in that case we quarantined the baby immediately and made sure the mother completed her quarantine period and was healthy before holding the baby. It is difficult for the mother and baby physically and emotionally but a very mandatory precaution for their well-being,” explains Dr Amna.
Facing unknowns in multiple ways between pregnancy and this crisis is not easy, and every woman deserves the support they need. Do your best to put the sole focus on what matters most right now: staying healthy and delivering your healthy baby. In these crazy times, beautiful moments like the birth of a child come along which breathes in new hope for everyone, affirming the fact that life will indeed go on.