A new UN report estimated 239,000 maternal and child deaths in South Asia due to the disruption in routine healthcare services caused by COVID -19.
The report, titled ‘Direct and Indirect Effects of COVID-19 Pandemic and Response in South Asia’, focused on Afghanistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, home to some 1.8 billion people.
It examines the effect of these government strategies on healthcare, social services, including schools, and the economy.
The report found that women, children and adolescents were the worst-hit in the South Asian region with a reported nearly 13 million coronavirus cases and more than 186,000 deaths so far.
One of the critical indirect impacts has been severe disruptions to the delivery and use of routine services, including essential health and nutrition services. Health systems, which were already stretched in many parts of the region, were not ready to adjust swiftly to the shock.
Women and children suddenly faced limitations in accessing facilities as the region saw significant drops in the use of both preventive and curative services.
Many countries, including those in South Asia, responded to the pandemic with stringent lockdowns. While hospitals, pharmacies and grocers remained open, almost everything else shut down.
It estimates that there have been 228,000 additional deaths of children under five in these six countries due to crucial services, ranging from nutrition benefits to immunisation, being halted.
It says the number of children being treated for severe malnutrition fell by more than 80% in Bangladesh and Nepal, and immunisation among children dropped by 35% and 65% in India and Pakistan respectively.
The report also says that child mortality rose the highest in India in 2020 – up by 15.4% – followed by Bangladesh at 13%. Sri Lanka saw the sharpest increase in maternal deaths – 21.5% followed by Pakistan’s 21.3%.
It also estimates that there have been some 3.5 million additional unwanted pregnancies, including 400,000 among teenagers, due to poor or no access to contraception.
The full effect of the pandemic – and ensuing lockdowns – is just starting to become clear as countries take stock of their public health and education programmes.
Experts in India already fear that malnutrition rates will be significantly worse across the country when the data pours in over the next few months.
Some countries in South Asia, like India, are still battling a surge in infections. While the nation-wide lockdown ended in June last year, several states and districts have resorted to intermittent lockdowns to arrest the spread of the virus.
The interruption to health services also affected those suffering from other diseases – the report predicts an additional 5,943 deaths across the region among adolescents who couldn’t get treated for tuberculosis, malaria, typhoid and HIV/Aids. (Source: BBC)