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In pandemic times, Black maternal health is more important than ever

The Covid-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the racial disparities in Black birth outcomes, advocates say
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While the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on Black communities is well-documented, with Black people taking hits in health, unemployment and education, maternal health advocates are focusing their attention on the particular crisis of care for pregnant Black women during the pandemic.

The Covid-19 health crisis has exacerbated existing shortcomings in the nation’s health system. And as a result of the health crisis, pregnant Black women in particular are reportedly enduring limited in-person prenatal care, limited support during labor, social isolation and increased economic anxiety.

As of 2019, Black women have faced a higher share of pregnancy-related deaths, and for Black women over 30, those figures are four to five times higher than their white peers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There is no concrete data yet available to determine the overall toll of the pandemic on them, but advocates like Dana Sherrod, birth equity and racial justice manager with the Cherished Futures for Black Moms and Babies, Public Health Alliance, are already expecting bleak outcomes.

"Covid is really exacerbating the stressors that exist for Black birthing folks. We know that high stress prenatally contributes to some of the inequities we see," Sherrod said in an interview. "Black women really have these unique experiences, and Covid is substantially adding to the stress of Black people. I imagine we're going to see that in our birthing outcomes."

April 11 through April 17 marks “Black Maternal Health Week,” which aims to shed light on Black women’s maternal and reproductive care. The Black Mamas Matter Alliance launched the event three years ago, and the cause has increasingly garnered attention as disparities in Black maternal care have made headlines in recent years. Now, countless public health professionals, reproductive justice advocates, doulas, midwives and more across the country participate in the weeklong event with everything from webinars and training to mutual aid. Many of this year’s events are virtual, which only underscores the myriad ways Covid-19 is affecting not only Black maternal health, but also the communal nature that has come to define Black Maternal Health Week.

With that, the White House on Tuesday released a proclamation recognizing Black Maternal Health Week and vowed to take steps to address the maternal health crisis. Initial efforts include providing $6 billion for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and allotting more than $250 million to implicit bias training, medical programs, early childhood development efforts, family planning programs and more.

Even as government leaders take steps to address the problem, Black women organizers are working in their communities to bridge the gap. Adjoa Jones, founding leader of African-American Infant and Maternal Mortality Community Action Team at L.A. County Department of Health Services, said the Action Team immediately worked to provide personal protective equipment to reproductive health organizations in the area when the coronavirus health crisis began.

"One of the things we knew in the beginning is we were gonna start to have pandemic pregnancies, which would result in pandemic births. We knew in the midst of this crisis we had to act," Jones said. "We had food drives and giveaways. We beefed up a lot of our virtual events and kept our community actively engaged through those offerings and sharing resources. We tried to meet people exactly where they are."

Community has long been crucial for pregnant Black people, and that sense of togetherness has been diminished during the Covid-19 pandemic.

"The impact of discharge, going home and not having the usual village that is there to support us is definitely a challenge," Sherrod said.

That's why advocates like the Memphis-based reproductive justice organization Birth Strides has launched a fundraiser to provide doulas and other services to pregnant Black women in the area. Jones said the Action Team worked to connect local families with organizations that met their needs. That collaboration was crucial throughout 2020, she said. Both Jones and Sherrod are part of the L.A. County AAIMM Prevention Initiative Steering Committee and Community Action teams.

Although no official data about Black pregnancy and birth outcomes amid the pandemic is yet available, a September 2020 study from researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that pregnant Black women are disproportionately burdened by the pandemic.

Pregnant Black women were more likely than white women to report that Covid-19 had negatively affected their jobs, and that the economic health and stability of their home had taken a hit. They reported more worries than white women about having a good, safe birthing experience and receiving “good prenatal care, and access to food, medication, and baby care items in the post-natal period.”

“Black women reported worrying more about the financial burden of the pandemic, currently having Covid-19, and dying from Covid-19,” the research showed. “Together, these findings suggest that greater economic burden of the pandemic on Black communities is a key stressor among Black pregnant women.”

Even in the midst of these struggles, pregnant Black women were found to be more self-reliant and were better able to regulate their emotions.

Scholars say easing this crisis and supporting pregnant Black women requires a feminist approach. Research published in 2020 found that “long-term investments in universal health care” would go a long way in helping them, along with expanding parental leave and diversifying medical personnel.

“Community health centers and birthing centers that include coverage of doulas and midwives, which have been shown to act as intermediaries for poor and Black parents, should be an integral part of universal health care coverage,” the authors added. “These policy recommendations are imperative to subvert the crisis of care that Black birthing parents are facing during the Covid-19 pandemic.”

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