Bringing a child into this world is one of the most challenging things I’ve ever had to do. I remember feeling a range of emotions, from complete exhaustion to total elation. It’s an overwhelming sense, unlike any other, that life as you know it has changed forever.
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At the start of this year, before the coronavirus pandemic swept across the world, I travelled with Unicef UK to Lesotho to see some of the incredible work they are doing to support children and young mothers across the country. I visited Maboto Health Clinic in Maseru, where I saw first-hand just how important it is for mothers and babies to be nurtured, cared for and supported during those crucial first few days, weeks and months of welcoming life into our ever-changing and complex world.
I met inspirational healthcare staff working around the clock to ensure that mothers and children could access high-quality care and support in this specialised health facility. There were many vital services ranging from antenatal care and support during birth and the postnatal period, through to vaccination and management of childhood illnesses in the early years.
When I gave birth, I had an instant realisation that I was now responsible for this tiny life and whatever I did, or said, from that moment on, would shape who they were as a person. It’s so important to support mothers, especially during the first three months of parenthood, because it is such a difficult, life-changing time. My child and I have had the luck and privilege to find that support here in the UK, along with all the opportunities that affords. But the reality is for millions of children around the world, a parent’s love won’t be enough to protect them from the impact of coronavirus.
Right now – in Lesotho and the world over – coronavirus is making it increasingly difficult for new parents to access these essential services. Unicef reports that over three-quarters of countries worldwide report a change in maternal health services due to the pandemic, with 17 countries reporting a 25 to 49 per cent drop in antenatal, obstetric and postnatal care.
One of the main reasons for this is that services are having to divert significant resources, including midwives from regular service delivery, in order to urgently respond to the pandemic. Pregnant women and parents with new-borns may also experience difficulties accessing services due to transport disruptions and lockdown measures, or simply be reluctant to visit health facilities due to fear of contracting the virus.
As well as meeting health workers in maternity services during my time in Lesotho, I met new mothers supported by Unicef-funded projects in the community. One of the most inspiring moments was speaking to a group of women who attended a young mothers’ programme, who gathered once a week to act as a support network for each other.
I met 19-year-old Mateboho, a confident, happy woman who loves to dance, but she told me how before the young mothers’ programme, she had been severely depressed. She explained that she didn’t understand what it was like to be pregnant, and how throughout her pregnancy she was so unhappy and couldn’t even bathe. After she had the baby she joined this amazing group, and she started to receive the support she needed. She told me how she gained confidence by speaking to the other mothers, and learnt how to love her baby. It was amazing to see her smile and see just how happy she was.
When I left Mateboho at the start of the year, before the pandemic hit, her future was bright and she had even been able to start a successful business to support her child. What she had been able to accomplish with the right help from Unicef and its local partners, despite facing so many challenges, was astonishing. It really shows that supporting babies and their mothers to have the best start in life really can be life changing.
The coronavirus pandemic is the biggest and most urgent global crisis children and families have faced since the Second World War. Lives are being upended and support systems are being ripped away. Unicef is working hard in Lesotho and all over the world to ensure that in spite of the pandemic, parents and children can continue to access vital and lifesaving maternal health and support services. But they can’t do it alone.
This World Children’s Day, we must come together and take action so that mothers and babies can survive and thrive. We have to act now to protect generation Covid.