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Women and girls face greater dangers during pandemic

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Essential sexual and reproductive health services must be maintained

The COVID-19 pandemic is having potentially catastrophic secondary impacts on the health of women and girls around the world. Decisions made at every level of the response to the pandemic are resulting in women being further cut off from sexual and reproductive health services, threatening sharp rises in maternal and neonatal mortality. Women and girls are often denied care outright or face dangerous delays getting the services they need. The impacts of misguided policies and barriers to care are especially severe in places with weak or overburdened health systems---including many of the places where Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) works.

A hugely significant lesson from the West Africa Ebola outbreak of 2014-16 is that the biggest threat to women's and girls' lives was not the Ebola virus, but the shutdown of routine health services and people's fear of going to health facilities where they could get infected. Thousands more lives were lost when safe delivery, neonatal, and family planning services became inaccessible due to the outbreak. Today we are witnessing the same dynamic on a much larger scale.

MSF teams at our medical projects around the world say they are already seeing the painful indirect effects of the pandemic on women's lives. Based on interviews conducted with staff in Colombia, Honduras, Greece, Uganda, Mozambique, South Africa, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the biggest challenges facing women and girls right now include:

  • closures and cuts to sexual and reproductive health services
  • movement restrictions, including travel bans, lockdowns, and curfews
  • global supply chain disruptions
  • lack of clear public health information and guidance

In addition, there has been significant reporting about the economic impacts of the pandemic, with poor and marginalized communities hardest hit. Refugees, migrant workers, and people working in informal jobs already face extreme difficulties getting access to basic health care, and these challenges are compounded by COVID-19.