COVID-19 Frequently Asked Questions
1. What is UNFPA doing to address the COVID-19 pandemic?
UNFPA is working with governments and partners to respond to the essential needs of women and girls of reproductive age who are affected by the COVID-19 outbreak. UNFPA is focusing on countries that have weak public health and social support systems, including countries in fragile and humanitarian situations.
UNFPA helps governments strengthen the capacity of their health systems, procuring and delivering essential supplies, ensuring access to sexual and reproductive health and gender-based violence services, promoting risk communication and community engagement, and contributing to the joint UN impact assessment of the pandemic.
During disease outbreaks, women face a variety of risks, yet they are too often absent in the design of epidemic/pandemic responses. This has been true in the COVID-19 experience thus far. UNFPA is advocating with national and local authorities to ensure that women’s participation, including as health workers, is prioritized.
UNFPA is also mobilizing its extensive network of youth and women’s organizations, including faith groups, to engage communities on infection prevention, healthy behaviours, as well as preventing and ending disease-related stigma and discrimination.
2. What should pregnant women be doing to stay safe?
Pregnant women should take the same preventive actions recommended for all adults to avoid exposure to the virus, in consultation with their health provider. All recommended actions, including those related to pregnancy and vaccination, are available on the WHO website.
3. Should new mothers exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms breastfeed their newborns? Should they be separated from their newborns?
There is currently no evidence that a woman with symptoms consistent with COVID-19 infection, who has recently given birth, needs to be separated from her infant. All mothers and infants, regardless of their COVID-19 status, need support to remain together to practice rooming-in, establish breastfeeding, and practice skin-to-skin contact or kangaroo mother care.
According to UNICEF, “considering the benefits of breastfeeding and the insignificant role of breastmilk in the transmission of other respiratory viruses, the mother can continue breastfeeding, while applying all the necessary precautions.”
Symptomatic mothers well enough to breastfeed should wear a mask when near her infant (including during feeding), wash hands before and after contact with the child (including feeding), and disinfect contaminated surfaces.
If a mother is too ill to breastfeed, she should be encouraged to express milk that can be given to the infant via a clean cup and/or spoon – while wearing a mask, washing hands before and after contact with the child, and disinfecting contaminated surfaces.
4. Is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting women disproportionately? How so?
Accurate, reliable sex-disaggregated data on COVID-19 infection and mortality rates are still needed.
But it is known that disease outbreaks affect women and men differently. Evidence from prior epidemics shows that existing inequalities for women and girls, and discrimination of other marginalized groups such as persons with disabilities and those in extreme poverty, worsen in these times. Women and girls face higher risk of domestic violence, as well as other forms of gender-based violence including sexual exploitation and abuse.
Women are less likely than men to have decision-making power during an outbreak, and as a consequence their general and sexual and reproductive health needs may go largely unmet. There is also an inadequate level of women’s representation in pandemic planning and response.
Globally, women are more likely than men to work in precarious, informal jobs while shouldering a greater burden of unpaid care, and can face interruptions to their work, loss of livelihoods, and increased care responsibilities as a result of COVID-19. Social protection systems that do not address gender inequalities during an outbreak can exacerbate the multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination women and girls face.
Women also represent approximately 70 per cent of the global health-care and social services workforce, which puts them on the front lines of the response and at increased risk of infection. As health systems undergo strain due to the virus, efforts must be made to account for the unique challenges faced by female health workers. For example, gender inequalities may leave women health workers less able to advocate for protective equipment. They may be less able to attend to their own sexual and reproductive health needs, such as hygiene supplies for menstruating staff or breaks for pregnant staff.
5. Are rates of domestic violence rising as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic?
Reliable data on gender-based violence are notoriously difficult to obtain, and conditions are rapidly changing as COVID-19 spreads around the world. We therefore do not have a clear view into how gender-based violence rates are changing. But we have plenty of reasons to be concerned.
Evidence from prior outbreaks indicates that women and girls face higher risks of intimate partner violence and other forms of domestic violence due to heightened tensions in the household. The financial impacts of epidemics and pandemics also increase the risk of other forms of gender-based violence, such as sexual exploitation and abuse.
These concerns are particularly acute in the COVID-19 pandemic, which has resulted in movement restrictions on a scale never before seen. There are real dangers for women and girls forced into isolation with abusers, and concerns over whether and how they can receive assistance. Additionally, since the onset of the pandemic, UNFPA offices around the world have reported an uptick in cases of gender-based violence.
Critical services provided by health systems, including clinical management of rape, psychosocial support and referrals to protection, may be cut off when health providers are overburdened with COVID-19 cases.
Health workers must be equipped with the skills and resources to provide sensitive, respectful and confidential care to survivors of gender-based violence.
6. How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected sexual and reproductive health and rights? Are women still be able to access sexual and reproductive health services during the outbreak?
Many health systems have diverted resources away from sexual and reproductive health services to deal with the outbreak. This could contribute to a rise in maternal and newborn morbidity and mortality, increased unmet need for contraception, and increased numbers of unsafe abortions and sexually transmitted infections.
In addition, the availability of family planning and other essential sexual and reproductive health commodities, including menstrual health items, can be impacted as supply chains are strained by the response to the pandemic. Through the first year of the pandemic, for example, family planning services were among the most extensively disrupted health services globally, according to World Health Organization data.
Sexual and reproductive health services, including antenatal and maternal care, are life-saving and must remain accessible. Studies indicate women have experienced significant increases in maternal death, pregnancy complications and stillbirths, outcomes linked to the impact of the pandemic on health systems and health-seeking behaviour. Special attention must be paid to ensure vulnerable populations – such as persons living with disabilities, persons living with HIV, indigenous people , and those living in poverty – do not lose access to this care. Health staff providing these services must also strictly adhere to infection prevention and control measures. UNFPA is working to maintain the continuity of these services globally.
Women’s and girls’ sexual and reproductive health choices and rights must be respected regardless of whether they are infected, or have been infected, with any form or variant of COVID-19. This including access to contraception, emergency contraception, safe abortion where legal and to the full extent of the law, and post-abortion care.
7. How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected low-income countries? How has it affected humanitarian settings?
Containing the rapidly spreading disease, including its variants, has been an enormous challenge even in well-resourced communities. Low-income and humanitarian settings face even greater risks. But it is important to note that all vulnerable populations will experience COVID-19 outbreaks differently, particularly as the equitable distribution of vaccines globally remains an important concern.
The COVID-19 pandemic has strained, and continues to strain, health systems, and it has severely impacted the health systems of low- and middle-income countries.
Those facing long-running crises, fragility, conflict, natural disasters, displacement and other health emergencies face even greater dangers. Many displacement camps and informal settlements are densely populated and have poor access to running water, making infection prevention measures even more difficult. Shortages of health workers and poor access to critical care services exacerbate the challenges these communities will face.
The COVID-19 FAQs have last been updated on 22 December 2021
Photo credit: CDC.gov