HARARE, Zimbabwe

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, landlocked southern African country Zimbabwe is reporting increasing cases of stillbirths.

Official statistics have counted 97 stillbirths in the main hospital in Harare in five months, mostly due to lack of urgent medical attention as health workers are hesitant to attend to patients, without protective gear.

Recently, 29-year old Petina Ngwenya gave birth to a dead baby, after she was tested COVID-19 positive. While doctors are still unable to link stillbirths with the pandemic, experts say it is because of a defunct healthcare system.

Zimbabwe’s nurses and doctors have been on a nationwide strike protesting at the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE).

“Precisely, pregnant women even as nurses and doctors are turning up in very low numbers at public healthcare centers. We hardly can help because we have no PPEs,” a midwife at Parirenyatwa hospital in the capital Harare, told Anadolu Agency on condition of anonymity.

Health activists say the expecting mothers are rapidly falling prey to pregnancy-induced hypertension, with the pandemic further worsening the situation.

“Hypertension associated with pregnancy has accelerated stillbirths in this country, but we can also not rule out how COVID-19 has also impacted on expecting mothers because everyone including pregnant mothers is forced to get tested for the disease before they are assisted to deliver,” Mirirai Chiongwe, a nurse in the capital Harare, told Anadolu Agency.

She said only a few expecting mothers afford to get tested for coronavirus before they deliver as per new requirements.

With most public healthcare facilities shut down, expecting mothers across Zimbabwe have no choice except to seek medical help from private clinics where charges are as high as $60 per test.

According to the Health and Child Care Ministry, pregnancy-induced hypertension (PIH) is one of the common causes of both maternal and neonatal morbidity.

– Hypertension is killer

Health expert Melinda Chikasha believed that hypertension affecting pregnant mothers is working hand-in-glove with coronavirus fears to worsen the health condition of expecting mothers.

In July alone this year, seven babies were stillborn at Harare Central Hospital amid claims that urgent treatment was delayed because of staffing issues.

Zimbabwe’s Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has asked all stakeholders, the government, medical practitioners, civil society, and individuals to put their acts together to save the voiceless mothers and babies.

Zimbabwe’s Vice President Constantino Chiwenga, who also doubles as health minister, has further complicated the situation by ordering junior doctors to work in the military before they are allowed to work in government hospitals.

Human rights activist Claris Madhuku, the head of the Platform for Youth Development, said the government action has further depleted the number of doctors in government hospitals, resulting in more stillborn cases.

While according to the World Health Organization the maternal mortality ratio had considerably declined in Zimbabwe over the years, Chiongwe said the advent of COVID-19 has made things again difficult.

“The gains made in curtailing cases of stillbirths and in this case maternal mortality may be reversed because health workers are hesitant to attend to patients, especially to expecting mothers during the pandemic,” she said.

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