Caught in Covid: Kashmir’s Beleaguered Birthgivers


Photo Courtesy, PTI

By sharing their tormenting motherhood experience during pandemic with Kashmir Observer, some of the Valley’s new mothers provide a short glimpse of their immense struggle for a safe space to rear their offspring.

By Hameeda Syed

WITH the arrival of the pandemic, the more vulnerable sections of the society were hit harder than their counterparts. While reeling from the damage and trying to maintain their footing in an already ineffective health infrastructure, the reality of contracting a seemingly unbeatable virus in Kashmir loomed heavily on their minds.

These silent voices of women who were pregnant, on the verge to deliver and/ or had delivered a baby amidst these trying times were lost in between scores of people rushing through dimly lit hospitals to save their loved ones.

‘It has been a traumatising experience for us’

“Coronavirus was already feeling like a nightmare come true, and we had three expecting women in our family,” Ameena, a resident of district Ganderbal said, while giving a third-person account of the experience. “The first delivery happened on the 5th of June. That was a time when the cases in Kashmir had not yet spiked owing to the lockdown and the district I come from was still a green zone.”

The three women in Ameena’s family who were expecting were her two sister-in-laws and her cousin. Detailing their plight, Ameena said that her family decided to go to a private hospital, owing to news about mismanagement in government hospitals.

“I remember very clearly how my sister-in-law, Zahida wept when she was leaving for her mother’s place, and the only thing she kept saying to us was to pray for her,” she said. Zahida was the first in their family to get tested for the virus before the delivery date.

“We were a little apprehensive, but comparatively calmer because the situation seemed to be under control. We kept on calling her and asking her to stay calm and if the swab test hurt, just to know how exactly it is done. The test was negative and the delivery went fine, Alhamdulilah.”

Zahida gave birth to her first child, a baby girl, who was received warmly. “I surprisingly didn’t even see a single person sighing over the birth, everyone was just relieved that the baby and the mother were fine. Priorities shifting, you see,” Ameena said.

The second sister-in-law, Saima was expecting her third child. The delivery was scheduled to happen in July. By then, the cases were already peaking.

“This time we were a little more apprehensive as the situation in Kashmir had suddenly turned bad, and after unlock, everything seemed to have gone the wrong way,” Ameena said.

However, contrary to their expectations, Saima’s pre-delivery COVID test came out positive. Immediately, the rest of Saima’s family, including her 5-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter were tested, with only her husband’s report coming out positive.

Following the news, Saima was forced to deliver a baby boy in a government COVID facility. Only one person, her mother, was allowed to accompany her. Although the delivery went well, it wasn’t until late in the evening when a doctor arrived for a check-up and administered a dose of painkillers.

“She wasn’t allowed to hold the baby. Another family member was called to look after him. She told us there was hardly any staff that would come to even ask or see if everything was okay. Those who came were in a hurry to leave. They had needed cotton gauze for dressing but weren’t able to find it anywhere in the hospital,” Ameena said.

After the delivery, the baby was tested and his reports came out negative four days later. Saima tested negative a day later, and was finally allowed to hold the baby and breastfeed him.

“It has been a traumatising experience for each of us, but even then it isn’t possible to imagine what Saima must have gone through on an emotional and mental level, with her husband being in the hospital, two of her kids away at home, and a newborn she couldn’t even hold close,” Ameena said. “She said that her stay in the hospital felt like being put in a grave, where you’re all alone by yourself.”

This particular experience left them scared and anxious for the third delivery of Ameena’s cousin, Kulsoom. Kulsoom had married late and had been able to conceive with a few complications involved. After the incident with Saima, Ameena narrated how Kulsoom would often call in a voice laced with fear while asking about Saima’s wellbeing.

“She was getting her consultations done from a private clinic since the beginning, and that’s where they got the delivery done eventually, at the end of July, when the crisis in Kashmir had deepened,” Ameena said.

Kulsoom’s pre-delivery COVID test was carried out by a private laboratory and she tested negative. The test cost around Rs 5,500, despite the government putting a cap on its price. “But the situation had been such that added with the trauma of past experiences, they would have paid more without a second thought.

“On the day of the delivery I saw her weeping even while entering the Operation Theatre. She was anxious since days and even her ECG before the surgery had hinted at the same. However, things went fine, Alhamdulilah,” Ameena said.

Kulsoom gave birth to a baby boy sans any complications. 

“I slowly slipped into depression”

“I couldn’t get an appointment with the doctor while I was pregnant,” Areeb said, a resident of downtown Srinagar, who delivered a baby girl on 6th June. “No one was available for a check-up and they told me to come when I was in my 9th month, that too, if I was in pain. Even then, they said they weren’t sure if they would be able to give me a check-up.”

Due to unavailability of doctors, Areeb visited Soura to try her luck. Upon reaching the Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences (SKIMS), she was turned away.

“I got the required tests after many obstacles but wasn’t even spared a glance. They told me I wasn’t a patient here so I had no business coming here till my 9th month,” she said. “They told me they had their own patients to deal with, and they couldn’t do anything for me.”

Despite their rejections, she lumbered on with her visits, fighting the overwhelming fear of contracting the virus while trying to get checked. She tried to take care by standing far from the crowd, wearing a mask and gloves to protect herself and her then unborn child.

“Even if I’d go in the morning at 9 am and stay till 8 pm, no doctor would see me,” she said. “I slowly slipped into depression. I had fifteen days left before my delivery. It was so bad that my in-laws decided to take me to a private hospital. We had no other option.”

In Modern Hospital, Dr. Masuma Rizvi took on Areeb’s case and consoled her throughout the last leg of the traumatic race. “She told me not to be afraid, that she would take care of me. She helped me a lot. Those last fifteen days went smoothly.”

After her delivery, Areeb’s feelings of helplessness subsided, but she stayed alert and cautious. She took extra care of her newborn, aware of the dilapidated health infrastructure she has been a victim of.

“I don’t hand her over to anyone,” she said assertively. “I sanitize my baby’s hands every other hour and don’t let any passing guest hold her in their lap. If they insist, I tell them to wash their hands before touching my child. If I don’t trust that person, I don’t give her to them. This is not the time to speculate. This is the time to stay safe.”

‘They don’t know what to do to keep their child safe’

“Well, first of all, before talking to them about the delivery, you have to explain to them about the virus’s existence,” a senior gynaecology resident in Srinagar said when I asked her about her patients’ psyche. “So many of them are totally ignorant of the virus. Some think the virus is a lie, a few educated among them blame the system and the closure of private clinics due to the lockdown. There are some women who are very worried and don’t know what to do to keep their child safe.”

Photo Courtesy, PTI

The resident, who wished to remain anonymous, said that the women would feel very anxious and would try to leave early after their check-up so that they would not expose their child to the virus.

“They find it very problematic to wear a mask during these times,” she said. “Since the female is already in distress owing to her pregnancy, this is an added burden.”

Stating that the attendant is not allowed to stay by the patient’s side during the check-up, or during labour or during required surgery, the resident said that her patients felt a lack of moral support and insecure.

The resident’s patients came often from small towns from faraway districts, such as Uri, and had very little idea about the pandemic. 

“When I asked my patients about bringing up a baby in the midst of all this, many gave hopeful answers, saying that it wasn’t as if the virus was here to stay,” she said. “But they do feel worried about it, from time to time.”

One of her patients, who had been tested positive, told the resident that she was more worried about infecting the newborn with the disease rather than being infected herself.

“In my personal opinion, I found many do not have an idea about the virus or how serious the situation was,” she said. “Those who were worried about it were extremely worried.”

According to the resident, the patients were more affected by the treatment of the doctors during this time than by the virus itself. They complained of not being able to recognise the doctor behind a PPE kit, being scolded for trivial things such as wearing a mask and were offended by not being touched by a doctor.

“They take the last part personally and don’t understand that precaution is more important right now,” she said.

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