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How to Stop the Spike in Maternal Mortality Caused by COVID-19

Photo: Ana Buitron

Photo: Ana Buitron

Julieth Zabrano faced overstrained health systems and xenophobia while seeking prenatal care after leaving Venezuela for Colombia.

Leaving your home, your family, and everything you know is not an easy decision. But when you don’t have enough money to feed your children, it doesn’t really feel like a choice. Sadly, this situation is all too common in Venezuela. According to the UN, one in three Venezuelans did not have enough to eat; even before the pandemic increased food insecurity.

“What encouraged me to travel were mostly the needs [in Venezuela]. We began to realize that the money was no longer enough,” says 22-year- old Julieth Zabrano. “The day I left was tough because I had to say goodbye to my mother, to my daughter, to leave her there.”



pregnant women and newborns die every year.

Like the millions of other Venezuelan women who have fled crippling inflation, economic collapse, political turmoil, and a lack of basic healthcare and nutrition since 2014, Julieth embarked on the treacherous journey in early 2020 across the Venezuelan border in hopes of finding work to send money home to her family for food and other necessities. After traveling for a full day and night on a crowded bus, she arrived in San José de Cúcuta, Colombia. “Then, the next day I started working right away,” selling Aloe Vera juice in Colombia’s bustling informal economy.

Julieth is no stranger to hardship and doesn’t let challenges dissuade her. But just as Julieth was settling into her new life, things became more complicated. The COVID-19 pandemic hit Colombia in early 2020, shutting down the informal economy in which she worked. Not long after, Julieth realized she was pregnant. While it is often a joyous occasion, pregnancy can also be deadly if expectant mothers do not have the right resources.

“When I arrived here, I suffered hardships and was hungry, but because of that I didn't give up, I kept going, I carried on...Little by little I made it with the money I earned.”

Julieth Zabrano

According to researchers, almost 90% of pregnancies annually — approximately 190 million — occur in settings with low resources and the highest maternal mortality rates. About 2.8 million pregnant women and newborns die every year — that is one mother or child gone every 11 seconds. Venezuela saw maternal deaths spike by 65% and infant mortality increase by 30% in 2016. The economic conditions and pressures on the health system have only increased since then.

Most of these deaths could be prevented with access to proper prenatal and antenatal care. Access to prenatal care has been curtailed by the COVID-19 pandemic globally, even in high-income nations. But an overstrained health system combined with xenophobia makes prenatal care can be difficult to come by.

“[Health care centers] denied us attention because we were Venezuelan migrants. … Most of them want us out because we’re migrants and don’t have documents. Most of us don’t have documents.”

As a direct consequence of COVID-19, most Venezuelan migrants in Colombia like Julieth lost their informal sources of income and their accommodations, making paying for prenatal care difficult even when a woman can beat the odds to access it.

When she was 5 months pregnant, a friend introduced Julieth to CEDMI , a CARE partner funded by Abbott that specializes in providing free prenatal care for Venezuelan migrant women.

“They gave me a checkup, I got some tests done, I had my pregnancy checkups, everything related to it… because many places aren’t willing to give us medical attention, and it’s very tough because we can’t find a place to get medical tests done, we can’t find a good place to get an ultrasound, so having their support is very helpful.”

A Mother’s Journey for Her Children

Four months and many checkups later, Julieth welcomed a healthy baby girl into the world thanks to the Abbott-funded prenatal care she received. While the pandemic is causing women all around the world to face disruptions to prenatal and maternal care, it is more important now than ever that the US government and international donors dedicate funding to providing prenatal and postnatal care in low- and middle-income countries. There are millions of women in Julieth’s position who would do anything to protect their children, and that starts with prenatal care.

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