By the Campaigns, Partnerships and Networks (CPN) Programme – CEHURD

The COVID-19 pandemic in Uganda brings about a worrying situation which will undoubtedly check the quality and ability of our health systems. The pandemic is expected to majorly impact the accessibility and availability of sexual and reproductive health and rights for all Ugandans. The Center for Health Human Rights and Development (CEHURD) is one of the many civil society organisations that are advocating for the advancement of the right to health for the vulnerable communities. This can be achieved by strengthening systems and channels of healthcare service delivery through research, documentation, lobby, advocacy, strategic partnerships and collaborations with respective stakeholders and voices from the rights holders.

In the face of the global pandemic, we commend the Government of Uganda and the Ministry of Health for the different efforts and measures put in place to contain the virus which, among others, include washing hands regularly with soap and water; stopping public gatherings; avoiding touching the eyes, nose and mouth; and closing borders. 

While a lot of effort has been put up in the fight against COVID19, we are concerned that other health matters such as maternal health, mental health and sexual and reproductive health and rights have not been given similar attention. 

The Presidential national address of 21st March 2020, restricted the use of public transport and only allowed private cars. It should be noted that the majority of Ugandans depend on public transport for movement. The additional measures passed by the President in his national address speech on 30th March 2020 that came with a ban of all privately owned cars on the road and required anyone planning to move and access health care services to contact their Resident District Commissioners (RDC) for either permission to move in a private car or access transport to a health center only worsened the situation. Such measures could not adequately address the needs of women seeking sexual and reproductive health services such as antenatal services and family planning services. Further still, during his address on 19th April, 2020, he allowed pregnant women to move to hospital by any available means without seeking permission for the RDCs. Therefore, The Government should ensure that the healthcare system is strengthened and well equipped to handle and respond to all emergencies.

It is the responsibility of all people, civil society organisations and all sectors to contain the infection, reduce transmission and stop the impacts of COVID-19 on sexual and reproductive health. It is our duty to protect and serve the vulnerable, especially the economically constrained who lack access to healthcare. The most vulnerable include women and girls, expectant mothers, adolescent girls and boys, elderly and those with existing chronic conditions like people living with HIV/Aids, cancer patients, diabetics and the hypertensive.

Government therefore, has a role and duty to protect and preserve its people by providing for access to and availability of health care services to the population equitably during this pandemic of COVID-19.

Limited access to reproductive health services

In the face of COVID-19 and the government’s response to it, accessing healthcare services has become a privilege reserved for only a few. Women now have to trek long distances to access the health facilities. This puts the lives of especially expectant mothers at risk, not to mention the babies since there is a possibility of giving birth along the way or resorting to traditional birth attendants since they are within the communities.  The media has reported women giving birth either in institutional quarantine centres or by the road side as they walk long distances to the hospitals. This will definitely see a rise in the number of maternal and child deaths due to lack of access to health facilities. 

Government and other stakeholders should therefore establish alternative, well-coordinated and safe means of transport to allow women access to the much needed healthcare. This coordinated response should be able to address emergencies and avoid the three delays in health according to World Health Organisation guidelines (delay in decision to seek care, delay in reaching care and delay in receiving adequate health care) for both the mothers and the babies to survive. In addition to this, the Government and Ministry of Health should closely work with civil society organizations such as CEHURD to sensitise masses on the referral medical services during COVID-19 lockdown and their right to quality healthcare.

Another challenge that may be faced by expecting women and their families during this current situation is being infected with the Coronavirus as their condition puts them at high risk. This risk is likely to affect their mental health and may lead to unexpected complications during or after child birth. The fear of not being able to get quality and timely healthcare services and information, inadequacy of supplies, absence of healthcare providers and commodities to respond to emergencies and offer specialised services as they are also in panic and fear for their lives, only compounds the problem. Most of the countries that have been supplying healthcare commodities either through donations or imports have been severely hit by the pandemic. This means that there is an anticipated shortage in supply of essential maternal health commodities such as misoprostol, oxytocin, magnesium sulphate and other necessary commodities. This has created a condition of uncertainty for expectant mothers about their lives.

In addition to the expectant women, over three million Ugandans are living with HIV and need to access ARVS mainly on a monthly basis. The lockdown affects those that were due for accessing care. Failure to access ARVs will affect their health, creating a state of ill health. Providing practical ways and allowing people living with HIV/Aids (PLHA) to access their medication freely despite the pandemic will ease the burden on the health care system after the lockdown. .

Health workers and support healthcare providers (Village health teams and Health unit management committees) should be trained and supported to provide health care during the prevailing pandemic. At the same time, they should have access to resources and systems necessary to safely and effectively contain the spread of the virus while giving healthcare to others. This can be done by availing them with reliable and up to date information, safety and protective gear and emergency services such that they are efficient and ready to take care of the expectant mothers, PLHA and other illnesses with confidence and professionalism.

Limited access to family planning services

The lockdown is likely to expose many men, women, boys and girls of reproductive age to a lot of sexual activity.  The chances of accessing and using protection and contraceptives during the lockdown are minimal. Unprotected sex will only expose them to risks of unwanted pregnancies, infection of HIV and STIs and resultant unsafe abortions. 

Already, Uganda is reporting very high rates of unmet needs to family planning. Twenty Eight per cent unmet need is a high number. Although the President committed to having this reduced to 10% by 2022 during the International Conference on Population and Development, the factors enabling this reduction must be in place. We are aware that some women and girls were accessing this service in hiding and the lockdown makes it extremely difficult for them to leave their homes to access the same.

Therefore, effective measures should be put in place to ensure access to and availability of contraceptives and family planning services during the era of COVID-19. Measures including putting up alternative service delivery points, empowering Village Health teams to continue providing services like condoms, and allowing free movement of health service providers to be in position to give the necessary services. . 

Young people’s access to services and information about their sexual and reproductive health needs/ challenges

According to the Presidential directives, schools and learning institutions were shut down. This leaves many young people at home with no access to information about their sexuality or even means to get to the next youth friendly centre for this information and services. It should be noted that the National Sexuality Education Framework for the out of school has never been finalised and nor were the parenting guidelines disseminated and implemented by the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development.

This leaves parents ill-equipped to provide accurate and age appropriate information about their sexual and reproductive health and rights.  For some of these students, they are spending more time with their abusers who also double as their relatives or guardians. This is likely to cause an increase in rape, defilement, incest, teenage pregnancies rates and unsafe abortions and with inability to report these violations or even access services like PrEP and emergency contraceptives.  

Gender based violence

With the lockdown and the shutdown of learning institutions, a lot of violence either mental, physical or sexual has been inflicted against women, girls and boys. There is a need to protect these against any forms of violence that may be as a result of idleness and poverty both at home and in public places like markets.

In Uganda, the majority of homesteads are women headed providing food, education to children, health care and all the basic necessities yet relying on daily incomes from small businesses.  Therefore, if violated and not given access to their sources of income, many families and children may end up suffering from hunger, illnesses, domestic violation and no education in addition to other effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Failure to access food and the quality of food being given out by the Government

With the presence of the COVID-19 in Uganda, a country where the biggest population survives on daily income through informal work, many have become financially constrained during this time. As part of the Government interventions during this pandemic, is to provide free food to such people living on a daily income and those in hospitals. However, the food has not reached most parts of the country and even those who have been able to access it have raised major concerns about its quality.

During this pandemic, being healthy by consuming nutritious foods is paramount thus local food systems should be properly coordinated and managed  to allow for access to safe and clean food and water. As communities are washing hands regularly and maintaining proper hygiene and sanitation to curb the spread of COVID-19, it is important that there is constant supply of and access to clean and safe water. Regulations on price hikes for essential commodities like sanitisers, soap, sugar and food stuffs should be implemented.

Recommendation

It is therefore important that as Government continues to manage COVID-19 crisis, emphasis  be put on essential medical services mainly addressing maternal health. This can be done by stocking and providing healthcare facilities and workers with the maternal life saving commodities (misoprostol, magnesium sulphate, oxytocin and other alternatives) to handle emergencies but also providing protective gears for the health workers to take care of the women during childbirth not putting their lives at risk of acquiring the Coronavirus.

MoH supports the Blood bank to stock blood sufficient enough to serve those mothers who may suffer from hemorrhage while giving birth during this crisis of COVID-19. This is because due to the social distancing, few people may be able to come out and donate blood yet a lot is going out and less is coming in to support women while giving birth.

Health workers and health care facilities should be fully provided for and stocked with adequate essential commodities to address the needs of women and the general public in case of any emergency while controlling the spread of the Coronavirus.

The referral system should be effective and efficient that in case of any emergency the women are referred as soon as possible for specialized services to control deaths while giving birth during the era of COVID-19 in Uganda. Every life matters.

Government collaborates with the private sector to support women with basic health commodities that can be used during child delivery but also after giving birth to maintain proper hygiene for the health care provider, woman and the newborn.

Different institutions to work hand in with the Ministry of Health to create awareness about the effect of COVID-19 pandemic to different parts of the country on the economic, social and health status of the entire country.

Alternative means of ensuring that young people have access to reproductive health and rights information and services should be put in place. The different stakeholders to circulate correct information on SRHR on their various online platforms as this will go along in preventing young people from being misled with myths and misconceptions about their health and reproduction.

Separate toll free lines should be put in place for the public to report non COVID19 related emergencies that require immediate attention and response.

That the Uganda police and all other security agencies stop the violation of human rights specifically women through beating them as they enforce the presidential directives. Every human being should be treated with respect and dignity irrespective of their gender and income status.

All these recommendations should be in addition to the Ministry of Health guidelines, Presidential directives and the WHO guidelines to control the spread of COVID-19 within the country and globally.

A version of this article was originally published in the Daily Monitor.

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