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Podcast Ep. 6: Motherhood in a time of pandemic

  • Burnet Institute
  • 31 Aug 2021
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In 2020, some experts feared birth rates would plummet because of coronavirus. But even as life came to a standstill, babies continued to be born. Australians, in fact, welcomed almost 300,000 of them into the world.

After a year of pandemic, the statistics now show that maternity wards were kept busy, with only a four per cent decline in birth numbers.

What did change drastically was the experience of pregnancy and giving birth.

Professor Caroline Homer AO is a leading midwifery researcher and maternal newborn health expert at Burnet Institute and says the indirect effects of COVID-19 seeped into every part of maternity care to impact women’s experiences.

“Suddenly their antenatal care stopped being face-to-face and it was on the phone.”

“And there’s a lot of antenatal care you can’t do in a phone call. Even showing women how to measure their tummy, to see if their babies growing. That’s a kind of midwifery skill and obstetric skill. And we had to teach women how to do it,” she said.

“Women were going to pharmacies to buy blood pressure machines so that they could take their own blood pressure and write that down on a piece of paper and tell the midwife when they rang.

“So those sorts of care, that would be normal, all stopped or changed.”

Closing the maternal gap

According to Professor Homer, the pandemic approach to antenatal care in Australia let many women, and their partners down – including a couple whose unfortunate story was typical of many.

“He was hearing that his baby had died, and his partner’s inside in the ultrasound room and he can’t get in there. We really messed up for that family. Surely we could have done better.”

Around the world, maternity wards looked even grimmer. Professor Homer says providing maternal health services in countries like Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Timor-Leste, “on a good day is tough.”

This disparity between how pregnant women receive care in other countries was made worse by COVID-19. Professor Homer says in Fiji it created a gapping chasm.

“They really struggled and closed the hospital.”

“They’ve had to open a new maternity unit and unit would be a sort of a generous term. A couple of rooms down the side of the hospital have now become the labour ward and they’ve had to move all of their staff.”

Hospitals are like big ships

One silver lining to come out of an era of coronavirus births is the realisation that maternal care can evolve.

“In Australia, we’ve basically done antenatal care the same forever. It was invented in 1929 in England.”

“Lots of research has been done along the way to try and change that, but hospitals are difficult to shift. They’re these big ships that are hard to turn around,” explains Professor Homer.

“In March, we changed antenatal care in two weeks.”

According to Professor Homer, this out-of-the-box thinking has also brought about unthinkable innovation in the ability to train midwives.

Now, across 22 countries, from Iran to PNG, midwives are being upskilled using WhatsApp groups in their own language.

Prior to the pandemic, it’s something Professor Homer says, she “never would have been brave enough to do.”

Listen and subscribe to How Science Matters, an 8-part podcast series by Burnet Institute to help us to make sense of the many impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic through science.

Hosted by former ABC broadcaster, Tracy Parish and Professor Brendan Crabb, a microbiologist, malaria researcher, and one of the best minds in infectious diseases and global health today. Produced by Written & Recorded.