Women's Health in the Pandemic

Olivia Santos

In an article from The Lancet, professor of global health policy, Clare Wenham, cites that during the west Africa Ebola virus disease outbreak what “showed the biggest threat to women’s and girls’ lives was not the virus itself, but the shutdown of routine health services and fear of infection that prevented them from going to health facilities that remained open.” This is proving to be the case for the current COVID-19 pandemic, as well. However this time on a much larger scale. Globally, access to gynecologic, reproductive, and sexual health services has taken a hit due to the risks imposed by COVID transmission. 

Over the course of the past few months, it is estimated that over nine million women and girls around the world have lost access to contraception and safe abortion services. Diminished access to these vital resources has left women vulnerable to increased risk of infection, unplanned pregnancies, and dangerous abortion procedures. In addition to this, in-person visits to healthcare providers can often catch signs of physical abuse or intimate partner violence for women and children. This measure cannot be fully taken advantage of in an increasingly digital healthcare space, where telemed visits are becoming the new normal, and a visit online may not be entirely private.  

In many cases, women’s health services, like contraception availability and abortion have been deemed non-essential, even though they may deal with time sensitive medical procedures. Unfortunately our present situations have been scapegoated by conservative policy makers and politicians to lockdown abortion access altogether. This summer, governors in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabma, Oklahoma all put a hold on medication and surgical abortions, categorizing them as elective procedures or claiming that they waste personal protective equipment (PPE). Meanwhile, OBGYNs and medical practitioners have been perfectly able to adapt these procedures into methods women can perform at home with the assistance of a doctor online, or safely in-person with cautionary measures and PPE necessary to all doctors. Again, the issue at hand may not be the virus itself, but rather the fear of infection and dissemination of medical information improperly placed in the hands of politicians (who are notably primarily white men). Worldwide, it is estimated that COVID-19 pandemic will be responsible for 2.7 million unsafe abortions and 11,000 pregnancy related deaths in 2020.

Now, in September, clinics have begun to open up and access has been restored to women’s health practices, particularly in the United States and Europe. However, it is troubling to see just how easy it was to shut down these services during a medical crisis. As stated by women’s health practitioners in the New England Journal of Medicine, “our system of abortion care delivery must be strengthened in ways that prevent abortion access from being so easily rescinded in times of health system stress, whether minor or substantial.” Beyond this, COVID-19 has really opened our eyes to the large health disparities that already existed, especially for women, low-income patients, and people of color. As we move forward with elections on the horizon, it only seems proper that we address these concerns now, before we are put in this situation again.