The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted family planning and maternal and newborn health services globally, and in the Philippines to these indirect effects may significantly increase the annual maternal deaths and unintended pregnancies for 2020 compared with the pre-COVID years, a study by the University of the Philippines Population Institute (UPPI) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) revealed.

“The COVID-19 global outbreak is challenging health systems worldwide, both the supply side (delivery) and the demand side (access) of essential family planning and maternal/newborn health services.  Particularly in low-income and middle-income countries whose health systems are weaker, millions of women may be indirectly affected by the pandemic,” advised Prof. Ma. Paz Marquez, Team Leader, UPPI Research Team on SRH/GBV Estimates.

Mr. Iori Kato from UNFPA and hospital staff of Santa Ana Hospital poses in front of triage tent for patients with COVID-19 symptoms donated by UNFPA supported by the Government of Australia to help the hospital with infection prevention and control.

The UPPI study that Prof. Marquez led, examined the effects of the COVID-19 on Filipino women’s and girls’ sexual and reproductive health, and freedom from violence.  The preliminary results indicate that the pre-existing underlying vulnerabilities of women and girls are worsening because of the indirect effects of the pandemic.

As the national and local health systems are overwhelmed by the necessary response to the COVID-19 patients, attention, and resources for women’s health might have been diverted.  Pregnant women’s utilization of facilities for ante-natal check-up and delivery is declining, because of service disruption, difficulty in commuting, and their fear of contracting COVID-19.  Similarly, their access to modern contraception has also been facing challenges.

A mother who recently gave birth in Mahal na Virgen Maria Sto. Rosario District Hospital, Batangas, receives a UNFPA maternity kit, which contains blankets, napkins, and other supplies they may need for postpartum and neonatal care

Already before COVID-19, the Philippines saw about 2,600 women dying every year due to complications from pregnancy or childbirth.  The maternal mortality cases in 2020 can increase up to 3,270, which represents almost 670 additional deaths from the 2019 level (26 % increase).

The annual total Filipino women of reproductive age (15-49 years of age) who do not use any contraception though they do not want to become pregnant, can also increase by another 2.07 million by end-2020, 67% increase from 2019.

Consequently, the total unintended pregnancies in 2020 may reach 2.56 million, 751,000 more than last year (42% increase).

The Philippines unfortunately showed one of the highest rates of adolescent fertility in Asia prior to COVID-19, described as a ‘national social emergency’ last year.  2020 may end up seeing 18,000 more Filipino teenage girls getting pregnant because of the indirect effects of COVID-19, compared to 2019.

Intimate partner violence is also expected to increase, because for instance women and girls are more likely to be stuck with the abusers at home.  Although many of such gender-based violence cases will be unreported, the study estimates a 20% increase in intimate partner violence, physical or sexual, in 2020 from 2019.

These preliminary results of the study were shared during the in-country launch of UNFPA’s global State of World Population Report (SWOP) 2020 and the commemoration of the 2020 World Population Day with the Commission on Population and Development (POPCOM).

UNFPA representative meets with the Chief of OB GYNE and Head of WCPU from Batangas Medical Center where UNFPA provided emergency maternity tent facility, WCPU tent and COVID-19 triaging tent to make their services more accessible to mothers, women, young people and COVID-19 patients.

“The challenge is for both the government and private sector to find innovative ways to ensure the continuity of essential SRH services for women of reproductive ages, such as family planning and maternal health services and social and protective networks even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Prof. Marquez underscores.

Six months have passed since the first positive case of COVID-19 in the Philippines was confirmed in end-January 2020, and the number of cumulative confirmed cases reached 93,354 on 31 July, with more than 26,000 active cases and over 2,000 deaths.  “The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted access to life-saving sexual and reproductive health services in the Philippines.  What it has shown is the deterioration of pre-existing inequalities for women and girls. Sexual and reproductive health and rights and freedom from violence are significant public health issues.  Urgent and sustained attention and investment are imminent,” Mr. Iori Kato, UNFPA Country Representative in the Philippines, alerts.

UNFPA Philippines is appealing for USD 11 million or 541 million Pesos of additional funding as part of the UN Global Humanitarian Response Plan for COVID-19, to assist the efforts of the national and local governments and NGOs to respond to the pandemic and “build back better,” leaving no one behind.

ComCo Southeast Asia is the PR partner of UNFPA.