Pakistan is the country that has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in South Asia, so it was already in crisis even before the coronavirus pandemic. Currently, the closing of maternity wards in the capital of Islamabad and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province might exacerbate an already grim situation, particularly for impoverished women and girls.
Like many other countries, Pakistan faces big challenges providing necessary health services, such as sexual and reproductive health care, at the same time responding to the pandemic. However, restricting access to health care for already marginalized Pakistani female is not the answer.
Pakistani authorities say that they need to close the maternity wards since staff members have been diagnosed with coronavirus. The gynecology ward in Lady Reading Hospital in Peshawar was closed after 29 staff members tested positive for the pandemic.
Instead of cutting off access to essential health care and closing maternity wards, the Pakistan government had better do better at protecting healthcare workers.
As of May 7, more than 500 Pakistani healthcare staffs have been infected with Covid-19. Instead of doing anything they can to protect healthcare workers, the country’s authorities have taken threatened force and legal action to silence medical workers expressing their concerns.
On April 6, police arrested 150 doctors and medical workers in Quetta, Balochistan for protesting the lack of personal protective equipment after 13 doctors tested positive for the virus. All those arrested were released subsequently. Doctors in Punjab have been on symbolic hunger strikes to draw attention to their demands of personal protective equipment and the Punjab government responded with police carrying batons.
Sexual and reproductive healthcare is always an important service and the staffs providing this care are important workers. They need to be protected safely through the provision of adequate personal protective equipment and other measures like creating conditions to isolate any patients with Covid-19 symptoms to prevent them from being infected by the patients.
The Pakistan government should act as soon as possible to make sure that essential measures are taken to reopen maternity wards safely and that sexual and reproductive health services go on to be available throughout the crisis in a manner that is safe for both patients and medical staff.