Sukhmani Khorana, Bhavya Chitranshi and I recently completed research about the experiences of six cisgender South Asian-Australian women who gave birth during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A note about language in this report: The South Asian “women” in our study identified as cisgender. However, we have used a gender-additive approach to language to be respectful and inclusive of trans, genderqueer and intersex people by using gender-neutral language alongside the language of womanhood. For example, both ‘maternal’ and ‘parental’, ‘breast- feeding’ and ‘chest-feeding’, and so on (Green & Riddington, 2020).
Prior to the pandemic negatively racialised women experienced barriers to healthcare and a lack of social support, which were further exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic. International border closures in Australia combined with local mitigation strategies inhibited social and cultural support from families, impacting many migrant mothers who gave birth for the first time in Australia. Many hospitals in New South Wales and Victoria instituted restrictions to birthing services as a way of reducing exposure to the coronavirus during the pandemic. These restrictions varied, but included not allowing partner attendance for antenatal appointments, reducing support people to one person that could be present during the labor and birth, and sometimes not permitting partners on postnatal wards.
South Asian women were recruited via social media, and qualitative semi-structured interviews were conducted between May and October 2021 via video, following ethical approval from the RMIT University Ethics Committee. Findings from our in-depth interviews indicate that perinatal experiences were adversely impacted by:
a) limited face-to-face support from healthcare providers;
b) limited access to partner support during appointments and in childbirth;
c) isolation and mental health impacts of not having access to family networks, particularly to those who could provide culturally specific perinatal knowledge and postpartum support;
d) increased reliance on an ecosystem of online support including apps, social media groups and credible websites, which had mixed results in terms of being culturally appropriate.
Our research suggests that pre-existing limitations of healthcare providers, services and apps with regard to culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) women in Australia have been amplified during the pandemic. Disruptions in the physical and social presence of family, friends and healthcare workers, caused by international travel restrictions and changing healthcare practices during the pandemic, add significantly to the everyday stress, anxiety and challenges faced by new parents. That responsibilization – the shifting back of responsibility from health services to mothers and their families – has led to mothers shouldering many of the burdens of a new transition by themselves, rather than in a system of collective care by wider family or partners as they might have expected.
These health system reconfigurations combined with the absence of support from family could have longitudinal adverse consequences for new parents and their children. Online Facebook groups from the mothers’ countries of origin or cultural backgrounds, or for mothers who had babies due in the same month, represented a significant source of information and support for the participants. This was particularly important at a time when women’s capacities to engage in traditional cultural practices, which provide practical, emotional and informational support, were compromised by the inability to garner familial support. In the context of a long-term pandemic, we suggest that health services: use flexible harm reduction approaches to facilitate parental support (rather than institute blanket bans), engage in active outreach, and that services are better integrated and smartphone enabled.