Three hidden health impacts of Covid-19 on women that need tackling – By Catherine Fookes

Much has been written about the obvious and immediate health impact of contracting the Covid-19 virus. Much less has been written about the hidden health impacts on women’s health – some of which were entirely unexpected.  

First, health services have said there has been a big decrease in women coming forward for health conditions such as heart disease, stroke and other issues as the message has been so strong around ‘stay at home’ and people are so worried about going to hospital and potentially coming into contact with Covid-19. This is the same for both men and women however women’s symptoms can often be missed – such as heart disease as men and women present differently. 

Secondly in some areas in Wales, early indicators suggest an increase of approximately 50% in abortion rates. Health professionals are adamant this isn’t because we are having more unprotected sex in lockdown. Instead, women requesting abortions report that it’s because they feel financially insecure at this time, and also that emotionally and socially they feel it’s a very bad time to bring a baby into the world.

Finally, there are the mental health impacts of pregnant women who miscarry. Women are having to attend scan appointments on their own. This means that they may find out that their precious, longed-for baby has died and they have miscarried whilst they are all alone in an impersonal room in hospital. The effect this has on both of them is unimaginable. Fewer women are being offered treatment in hospital to manage incomplete or missed miscarriages, instead being offered only natural or medical management at home. Even if hospital treatment is available, the woman then attends on their own. This is all traumatic at the best of times but to be denied your choice of management, or to have to go through this without a partner or loved one to hold your hand is surely pushing social distancing too far? If we can give birth with a partner present, why can’t we attend crisis antenatal appointments with a partner present too?

The mental health impact of a miscarriage under lockdown could be significant, as women are unable to see their family or friends for support, and could find it difficult to access mental health care too. We are all being asked to avoid unnecessary calls on the NHS so women may feel they shouldn’t reach out to their GP to get help if they are struggling with depression after miscarrying. Miscarriage is lonely and isolating at the best of times, and in lockdown there has been lots of emphasis on giving birth alone, and how that must impact women, but very little on the needs and experiences of women who miscarry.  

Women already face serious health inequalities as outlined in our latest Feminist Scorecard, such as a lack of 50:50 clinical trials, under-funding of women’s health issues and, in Wales, a lack of recurrent miscarriage clinics. Covid-19 threatens to exacerbate those health inequalities further if we don’t see immediate action taken.

Activists must persuade governments and the NHS in all four UK Nations to:

  • run public campaigns around stroke and heart disease specifically focusing on symptoms experienced by women, reminding them that the NHS is still open; 
  • start planning urgently for when operations and appointments resume, pumping more resources into the NHS so that the queues that were for example six months for a hysterectomy, do not become 12 months; 
  • they must allow women to be accompanied by partners at emergency antenatal clinic appointments;
  • ensure that women’s options for managing a missed miscarried are not curtailed, and ensure adequate mental health support is available for both parents-to-be following miscarriage. 

If the above is done, we can be confident that women and their health concerns do not go to the back of the queue when normal life resumes.

How to get involved: WEN Wales have been hosting a series of virtual #WENCafes since lockdown began with a panel of experts on various topics so far including health, VAWG and poverty to explore and record the experiences of women and the impact the changes have had on them. We use the information gleaned to lobby Welsh Government on what needs to be done. You can find out about our cafes by following @WenWales or joining us, for free: www.wenwales.org.uk/join-us

Catherine Fookes is a previous Fabian Women’s Network Mentee and Director of Women’s Equality Network (WEN) Wales

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