While Georgia has been praised for how it has dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic, keeping infection and death rates low, state-imposed strict lockdown measures have had a significant effect on new mothers and pregnant women. They became one of the most vulnerable groups during this time because of difficulties accessing adequate health services.
While Georgia’s national policy echoes the principles of the World Health Organization (WHO), which advocates fair and respectful treatment of pregnant women and mothers, and unhindered access to health services, women4peace has identified cases where women have reportedly been treated in ways that stand contrary to this guidance.
The main concerns that pregnant women reported during the pandemic were restrictions on movement, limited access to routine healthcare services, a ban on the presence of a companion during childbirth, as well as a ban on breastfeeding and skin-to-skin contact with newborns.
The imposition of coronavirus curfews and a transport ban also led women in Georgia to miss antenatal check-ups. Nona Garibashvili, who lives in Kakheti, faced severe restrictions that led to the premature birth of her son, who was born at 29 weeks and spent several days in a special incubator as a result.
“Due to quarantine restrictions, I cannot visit a doctor to monitor my pregnancy. As a result, in early May I gave birth to a premature baby. These were the hardest times of my life. The baby needed special care, he was placed in an incubator, and because of the quarantine rules, I was not even allowed to see him, I waited outside in the hospital and prayed for him. I have lived in this hell for 50 days. Finally, my boy is healthy and gives me happiness and joy every day,” Nona told women4peace.
For many women, having family and friends with them can help them overcome common pregnancy-related issues. Since quarantine restrictions prevented women from being accompanied by family or friends, they found it much more difficult to deal with loneliness and the stress that comes with giving birth.
Mari Chumburidze, gave birth to her second child during the pandemic and was not allowed to have her husband by her side. Then when her child required intensive care, she could not see her baby or breastfeed.
“Being alone was very stressful. I was completely alone at this very important moment. I went through shocking days. The doctors treated me rudely and did not give detailed information about how my child was doing. Due to travel restrictions, I could not deliver breast milk every day and it disappeared. Now feed my child formula. It was a disaster,” Mari told women4peace.
Although a broad national survey of the complications women faced during the pandemic has not yet been conducted, the Office of the Public Defender of Georgia and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) have already reviewed the increased risks that women and girls faced during this period.
According to the guideline released in March, UNFPA emphasizes that the pandemic is “a particularly worrying time for women who are pregnant and in need of routine health services.” UNFPA recommends that the government maintain the health of pregnant women and provide them with quality information and assistance.
“It is important to ensure that all pregnant women with a suspected, probable or confirmed COVID-19 infection continue to have access to the full range of quality health care,” UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem emphasised.
The Office of the Public Defender of Georgia believes that the root of the impact of the pandemic on pregnant women lies in systematic reproductive and sexual health issues in Georgia, which are related to financial problems, social barriers and lack of information.
Back in 2019, the National Report on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Human Rights, the Ombudsman stressed that the state does not have a systemic vision of postpartum care and services. The representative of the Public Defender’s Office stressed that in a country where maternal deaths and morbidity remain high, at a rate of 23.5 per 100,000 live births, the consequences of the pandemic are noticeable, especially for women living in rural areas.
Aynura Aliyeva who comes from Marneuli, a city dominated by ethnic Azerbaijanis, gave birth to a baby during the pandemic. This region has been one of the hotspots for COVID-19 infections, which at one point led to a complete lockdown of the area. Although there are maternity hospitals in the region and hence antenatal and maternal health services are available, local women often prefer to shoulder additional costs to seek healthcare in larger cities, mainly the capital Tbilisi, where services are better.
“Having a doctor in Tbilisi and giving birth there is an expensive pleasure, since you have to pay yourself, but women in the region do not trust the competence of doctors and the quality of services there, they prefer to receive health services in big cities,” Aliyeva added that, “During the pandemic, it was more difficult for us to get appropriate treatment. The ban on transport made me very nervous, since I did not know how I could leave the region and go to Tbilisi to give birth. It was 4 am when we arrived in the city, and since the city was deserted and dark, we could hardly navigate to get to the hospital.”
Nino Mirzikashvili, health expert and Associate Professor at Ilia State University, agrees that the pandemic exacerbated the problems of women’s health in the regions.
“Women particularly in regions, where a high number of Covid-19 infections were recorded, were severely affected when it came to obtaining the necessary medical services. They also have no access to information. While the government and international organizations such as UNICEF have tried to develop distance counseling and support services, women in the region have not been able to benefit from this because they also lack adequate access to the Internet and modern technology. The state should not only focus on preventive measures, which are the first and necessary step to prevent the virus, but should also develop a long-term and sustainable crisis management plan,” Mirzikashvili told women4peace.
The expert expressed concern that if there is another outbreak and Georgia fails to control the spread of the virus, the already fragile health infrastructure will collapse, and many pregnant women and expectant mothers will be left without vital health services that could further increase maternal and infant mortality.