Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Covid-19 Impact on Sexual and Reproductive Health in Pakistan

By: Komal Qidwai 

Skyline View of Karachi after Covid-19 Lockdown 
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Covid-19 pandemic in Pakistan is yet to peak, with over thirteen thousand recorded cases already and no indications that we are flattening the curve yet. Combined with the country’s abysmal health and gender indicators and a fragile healthcare system, this pandemic will exacerbate barriers to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) for women and girls. This blog discusses emerging areas of concern and points to some opportunities that practitioners and advocates may wish to pay attention to in the months ahead.

Even before the current crisis, access to quality and affordable reproductive healthcare in Pakistan was beyond the reach of many women. Table 1 provides data from the 2018 Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey (PDHS), proof that our key indicators of SRH are far from acceptable.

Only 51 per cent of women had at least four ANC visits for their most recent birth in the five years before the survey, even though WHO recommends a minimum of four. Despite an increase in number of women delivering in health facilities, a significant percentage still have home births in the absence of skilled healthcare providers. The percentage of married women who use contraception is also deplorably low compared to 56 per cent in Bangladesh.

Table 1.
Maternal Mortality Ratioa
276/ 100,000 live births
% of women having at least 4 antenatal visitsb
% of women who delivered in a health facilityb
% of currently married women using any contraceptionb
% of women who experience physical violence by spouseb
Source: a. PDHS 2006-7, b. PDHS 2017-18

Lockdown measures are likely to worsen these indicators for women and girls. Early reports indicate a sharp rise in domestic violence already.

As the pandemic unfolds in Pakistan, it is burdening an already over-stretched public health system. Our tracking of news and conversations with health-care providers reveal that new urgent areas of concern have emerged even before ICUs have become full of Covid-19 patients. Patients with non-communicable diseases are being denied admission in private hospitals due to a fear of infection.

Doctors and healthcare professionals treating coronavirus patients do not have access to adequate personal protective equipment, and are beaten by police when they protest. Meanwhile, outpatient services were suspended in all major hospitals in Sindh, such as Civil Hospital Karachi, Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Center (JPMC), National Institute of Child Health, as well as Sindh government hospitals and district health facilities from March 18 onwards. After April 2, outpatient services were partially reopened, with JPMC and Civil Hospital reporting a drastic reduction in number of patients.

The impact on the healthcare system is affecting the availability of sexual and reproductive health services. Gynaecologists and obstetricians with private practices in Karachi report that they are following international guidelines on Covid-19 and have limited antenatal appointments and instructed patients to visit only if absolutely necessary. “Pregnant women are very anxious because of this situation as they are unable to have their regular, scheduled appointments. Those with high-risk pregnancies are particularly anxious,” says obstetrician Dr. Sadia Pal. Patients share test results with doctors on WhatsApp, and consultations are carried out on the phone or via Zoom and Skype.

With an increased need for telemedicine, helplines have been set up, such as one by the Pakistan Medical Association for phone consultations. While emergency obstetric services are still operating, many patients may not be able to reach healthcare facilities in time due to closure of public transport. Doctors are also aware of guidelines for pregnant women infected with coronavirus, and Punjab’s health department has exclusively allocated Ganga Ram Hospital in Lahore for the treatment of infected pregnant women.

Pakistan’s National Action Plan for Covid-19 does not include any guidelines for managing SRHR during the pandemic. Sindh’s provincial government, however, has prepared guidelines on managing family planning and reproductive health services. It aims to ensure continued supply of contraceptives and functioning of its Family Welfare Centers (FWCs) situated within health facilities. Those centers located in densely populated areas will provide phone consultations. Contraceptives are to be provided to women in quarantine centers via Special Family Planning Desks.

Those providing services in communities such as Lady Health Workers (LHWs) are to give users with a two-month supply of contraceptives. However, LHWs in Karachi report that they have run out of medical and contraceptive supplies. “The government has promised to provide us with personal protective equipment, but so far we have received nothing. We even have to buy masks and sanitizers ourselves,” reveals a Lady Health Supervisor. The needs of these providers cannot be ignored as women are disproportionately represented in the healthcare workforce, and also have additional burdens of care-giving at home.

Doctors tell us that FWCs in Karachi’s government hospitals are closed due to Sindh’s province-wide lockdown. “Women are leaving hospitals without any post-partum family planning counselling,” says obstetrician Dr. Azra Ahsan. Greenstar, an organization that provides SRH services is also finding it difficult to operate. “Governments are not clear about what constitutes essential versus non-essential services and so clinics are being made to shut down,” reports Sana Durvesh about Greenstar’s family planning clinics.

Pakistan can draw lessons from the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreaks in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, an indirect impact of which was a significant increase in maternal deaths due to a failure to address SRHR in measures to control the epidemic. Even during the 2015-2016 Zika virus epidemic in Brazil, women had difficulty accessing contraceptives despite the danger it posed to pregnant women. Many advocacy groups and organizations, such as the Center for Reproductive Rights have called on governments to avoid impacts on SRHR during the current crisis. Based on these demands and emerging findings on the impact on SRH services, here are some specific recommendations for Pakistan:
  • Employ women doctors currently out of the work force to provide tele-health services from home, such as the initiative Sehat Kahani, and enable online prescriptions.
  • Provide Personal Protective Equipment to LHWs so they can continue their work within communities
  • Ensure supply, availability and accessibility of essential drugs such as misoprostol through chemists.
  • Ensure affordability by increasing availability of free or low-cost obstetric services and medicines.
  • Ensure availability of contraceptives, including contraceptive injections and long-acting reversible contraceptives.
  • Expand the testing of women in communities for Covid-19.
  • Hire and train women to serve as contact tracers.
  • Expand online counselling services for women seeking medical, psychological and legal support for domestic violence during lockdown and as economic conditions worsen.
  • Remove barriers for domestic violence survivors seeking protection services.
As we grapple with this public health emergency, it is essential that our response is inclusive of the needs of women, girls and marginalized groups and capitalizes on opportunities to remove barriers to quality sexual and reproductive health services.