With one of the highest maternal mortality rates in South Asia, Pakistan was already in crisis before the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, the reported closing of maternity wards in Islamabad, the capital, and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province could exacerbate an already grim situation, especially for impoverished women and girls.
Like other countries, Pakistan faces huge challenges providing essential health services, including sexual and reproductive health care, while responding to the pandemic. But restricting access to health care for already marginalized Pakistani women is not the answer.
Pakistani authorities say they need to close the maternity wards because staff members have been diagnosed with Covid-19. The gynecology ward in Lady Reading Hospital, Peshawar was closed after 29 staff members tested positive for the virus.
Instead of closing maternity wards and cutting off access to essential health care, the Pakistan government needs to do a better job protecting healthcare workers.
As of May 7, more than 500 Pakistani healthcare workers have been infected with Covid-19. Instead of doing everything possible to ensure protection for healthcare workers, Pakistani authorities have taken legal action and threatened force to silence doctors and medical workers expressing their concerns.
On April 6, police arrested 150 doctors and medical staff in the city of Quetta, Balochistan for protesting the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) after 13 doctors in the city tested positive for Covid-19. All those arrested were subsequently released. Doctors in Punjab province have been on symbolic hunger strikes to draw attention to their demands of PPE. The Punjab government responded with police carrying batons.
Sexual and reproductive healthcare, including pregnancy and birth care, is always an essential service and the staff providing this care are essential workers. They need to be kept safe through provision of adequate PPE and other measures such as creating conditions to isolate any patients with Covid-19 symptoms to prevent exposure for uninfected staff and patients.
The Pakistan government should act quickly to ensure that necessary measures are taken to safely reopen maternity wards and that sexual and reproductive health services continue to be available throughout the pandemic in a manner that is safe for both patients and staff.