As there are many States in India that are in some form of lockdown, and while our memory tends to be short, we must remember that this lockdown has caused a disruption of many services that we have taken for granted. But there’s one report that has grabbed my attention. It is of a recent study conducted by the Population Council of India on contraceptive demand and the uptake among women suggest that 80 lakh condoms in India and 40 lakh contraceptive pills which are usually distributed weren’t in fact delivered during this lockdown. There is an entire infrastructure of distributing contraception, of gynaecologists helping people get IUDs, of access to care and services that has completely broken down apparently during the lockdown. There are several studies that have led to a belief that this is going to cause a spurt in the population growth of India.
“At 20.1 million, India is expected to have highest births since COVID-9 declared as pandemic”, a report by UNICEF reads. It has warned that pregnant mothers and babies from across the world during the pandemic are threatened by strained health systems and disruptions in services.
“I am calling them Covid19 Babies. Our estimation coincides with the global report that there are going to be 20 million extra babies amidst this lockdown”, – Poonam Muttreja, Executive, Population Council said.
For women who are already over-burdened during this pandemic because of the care-giving roles with the husbands, in laws, children at home, for them to get pregnant in the midst of this chaos is nothing but sheer nightmare. In addition to that, the huge feeling of anxiety because of being cooped up for months owing to the virus, of getting an infection and so on have naturally take a toll on the people. Secondly, witnessing a lot of abortions will intensify the plight even more. Statistic says that India witnesses 16 million cases of abortions each year. In addition to the non-availabilities of emergency contraception and proper medical facilities on account of the current situation, it’s startling to even imagine the morbidity and the mortality the country will witness amongst women. Pregnancy is meant to give joy, provide a sense of fulfilment, it’s an achievement for a woman and an unwanted pregnancy is anything but an achievement, it’s a disaster for women with high morbidities. Pregnant women have been told to be completely secluded, quarantine themselves, so how are all these poor women quarantine themselves in moments of such crisis!
The family and the healthcare system have been completely crumbled in this lockdown. The distribution of pills and other contraceptives is managed by the Asha workers in the rural areas. The Ashas are the second largest ANMs (Auxiliary Nurse Midwife) – they insert IUDs, distribute, council. We have more than 3.3 million Asha and Anganwadi workers in the country. These are the people who are actually the Corona Heroes, the ones managing everything at the primary healthcare level for the pandemic. Not only the healthcare, they are doing the enumeration, sending the data to the government, scrutinising every household in the villages. After doing all of this, the last service they have time for is of the family planning – the prenatal and postnatal care or other similar services in the course of this pandemic.
“Ashas were given a thousand rupees extra to do the Covid work, the government could have given them at least 5 thousand rupees extra and asked them to keep distributing the contraceptives, infact increase it. The data from the Population Council has already reached the government. They have asked us to make a small film and do some behaviour change communication instead of doing something concrete about it. How are we going to reach women rights now when the government has turned a deaf ear!”, Ms. Muttreja said.
It is not merely because of the halt in the distribution of family planning products that would raise the number of child births. 75% of the family planning method that is used is Sterilisation. Sterilisation, as a service has totally come to rest owing to the fear of the Virus. Secondly, people are refusing or being reluctant to visit the healthcare facilities as they now are seeing these institutions as places for Covid, especially the community centres, district hospitals and also the primary healthcare centres. In fact, people are looking at these frontline health workers as spreaders of the Virus since they have not been given any protection by the government.
The normal number of deliveries we have per year is close to 25 million across the country but expecting another 20 million is almost a leap of 80%. And this will then lead to babies being abandoned, incessant poverty, mismanagement – all of these will certainly spiral out of this one problem. Invariably, it’s the girl baby who will face the wrath of the pandemic.
“The babies will be hugely under-nourished due to the shortage of food and starvation of the poor mothers. The anxieties would add to the vulnerability of the babies. Under-nourished babies especially girls grow up giving birth to further under-nourished babies and it would be an entire cycle of such babies suffering from malnutrition would even have 50% higher rate of dying, of suffering from heart and many other incommunicable diseases”, Poonam Muttreja said.
There have been work done in the country for the last 40 years in between the non-profit organizations, NGOs and the government in an attempt to solve a single problem, the cycle of under-nourishment – the biggest problem India faces. We underfeed our girls because we prioritise the boys in homes. The girls are the one malnourished – more than 50% of the girls in India are Anaemic, married at a very tender age, have kids in their teens and their children born under-weight are more vulnerable to small avoidable diseases like diarrhoea, malnutrition that causes death. They are not fed enough between the ages of 0 and 5; they actually don’t develop enough to truly identify their full potential. So by giving birth to generation of India who can’t compete with the world outside because they are just not fed enough, their brains don’t develop enough, they are sentenced to a lifetime of poverty. It doesn’t matter what opportunities you provide them as adults, they can’t compete. Our healthcare system has to cope with many more numbers of children who are undernourished. The healthcare sector will be overwhelming burdened; it`s already in the ICU. The government needs to invest a lot more money, triple the expenditure on health. Moreover, we as a country can’t afford to have more children in such a fragile situation of Covid19.
This episode is too a big setback for women in terms of women’s empowerment – many girls will stay at home to help the mothers with babies, they won’t go back to schools. After the outbreak of Ebola or whenever there has been any crisis or natural disasters, a large percentage of girls have not been allowed to be back to schools, makes them marry in their teenage years. Whatever way we look at, the dice is loaded against girls and women as a consequence of this neglect.