Safer Together: Accessing Care in Malawi

“When we go to the hospital, we are not being helped.” Malawi Community Members Demand Comprehensive Care in the Wake of COVID-19

Maziko Radio listeners shared their experiences of reproductive and maternal health services in Malawi with White Ribbon Alliance Malawi’s Eya Mwenifumbo-Gondwe during the coronavirus pandemic as part of the Safer Together: Respectful Maternity Care and COVID-19 campaign.

On April 20th, Maziko Radio host Dickson Kambalame and Eya Mwenifumbo-Gondwe, White Ribbon Alliance Malawi’s Programs & Advocacy Manager, conducted a radio phone-in-program to hear the first-hand experiences of women and girls who had accessed health facilities for reproductive and maternal health services during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“[Coronavirus] is a very dangerous disease that has greatly affected the world over. People are dying every day because of the pandemic. Mothers and young children have been greatly affected by this pandemic,” shared Mwenifumbo-Gondwe during the program. White Ribbon Alliance Malawi, as part of the global Respectful Maternity Care Council’s Safer Together: Respectful Maternity Care and COVID-19 campaign, has directed its advocacy efforts to ensuring that women and newborns receive the quality maternity care that they deserve, while helping health workers to support that care during the current crisis.

When asked to share thoughts on the pandemic, callers raised their concerns on the Malawian government’s response to the pandemic and were anxious that the focus on only fighting COVID-19 would leave Malawi vulnerable to other serious health conditions. One caller shared their fears for “people that are infected with HIV who receive [antiretrovirals] and women who are expecting,” and worried that, after the pandemic, the country will “have managed to contain coronavirus, but then realize that many people have died due to other diseases that [were] neglected.”

What many Malawian callers hoped to emphasize was that COVID-19 has shown the faults within the health system that have been there for years. One caller shared their belief that “healthcare service delivery is not working well,” and, amongst callers, there was general concern for the overall health of the nation, not just related to COVID-19, but for all of the regular health issues that continue to persist during the pandemic.

One of the health issues that callers were asked to comment on was maternal and reproductive health services in the wake of COVID-19. Callers worried about pregnant women turning to traditional birth attendants out of fear of delivering in health facilities due to COVID-19; without a team of qualified health workers, maternal health outcomes could worsen, risking the lives of both mothers and babies.

Along with the fear of contracting COVID-19 in the hospital, callers shared that women were being swayed from delivering at health facilities due to  the fear of being treated with disrespect or even abused by health workers who themselves were acting out of  fear  for their own health, because they did not feel protected from their patients. One caller told the story of a woman they encountered outside an antenatal clinic: “Health workers [were] injecting me as if I am an animal, literally throwing an injection from afar so that they do not touch us.” And I had asked several women who expressed the same issue [who] said, ‘Do you think I can go there again after how they injected me?’”

Health workers fear touching patients due to the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) provided by the government. Without safety for themselves, health workers do not feel safe taking care of others. Fear is rampant amongst the health worker community, and without necessary provisions to keep workers safe, women are at risk of not getting the respectful maternity care they deserve.

Mwenifumbo-Gondwe echoed the importance of maintaining quality maternal health services and proper support of health workers in this time of crisis, which is the focus of White Ribbon Alliance Malawi’s Safer Together campaign.

“It is not right for an expecting mother to be kept on the queue for the whole day and not be assisted. As professional healthcare workers, this is not part of our training and we needed to approach this issue with a sober mind, help mothers accordingly so that they should feel that ‘I went to the health facility and I was assisted by a health care worker in a manner that was respectful and the health care worker provided me with all the necessary information that I needed to know for me to take care of myself,’” Mwenifumbo-Gondwe shared.

Mwenifumbo-Gondwe urged the government to provide the necessary PPE for health workers and urged the government to make sure that part of the health force being employed by the government are maternal health workers, including midwives. She urged mothers to continue delivering at healthcare facilities, stating that “there is no better place than that – delivering at [the hands of ] traditional birth attendants will only increase the risk of morbidity and mortality for these mothers.”

If you or a someone close to you has not been assisted respectfully and properly when seeking care, Mwenifumbo-Gondwe closed the radio program by highlighting s the following resources: ”there is the office of the Ombudsman where you can report any issues that is hindering one from accessing comprehensive health care, but also Health Centre Management Committee (HCMC), and White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood Malawi will take it from there because these are offices that we work with closely. Everyone should know that these offices are found in every health facility across the country.”

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Ugandan Mother Lost

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Pregnant in a Pandemic

Rethinking prenatal care at a time people are being told to stay home (PBS NewsHour)

Hope and New Life

A Brooklyn Maternity Ward Fighting Covid-19 (The New York Times)

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