By AliyyaSawadjaan
Features Writer, The Philippine STAR

The pandemic brought by the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) created major challenges to hospitals around the world, including the Philippines. With an overwhelmed health system, most hospitals around the country are struggling to keep normal operations while still treating patients from the virus. World Health Organization (WHO) director general TedrosAdhanom emphasized that “All countries must strike a fine balance between protecting health, minimizing economic and social disruption, and respecting human rights.” This includes women’s choices and rights to sexual and reproductive health care.

The worries and stress brought by COVID-19 have affected sexual and reproductive health care, including access to contraceptive information and services during the pandemic.

COVID-19 and sex 

With the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) placed in Luzon and other parts of the country from March 16 to May 31, couples are quarantined together. Studies are still being conducted on COVID-19. One of them found traces of the virus in the feces of people who are infected, while another study found the coronavirus in the semen of men who had active infections and those who recovered. However, it still isn’t clear if the disease can be sexually transmitted or not.

Experts say that sex can still be performed but with precautions. Masturbation is a safe way to go about it as this will not spread COVID-19 to another person, provided appropriate preventative measures are observed.

If two parties are healthy and are living together, had no exposure to anyone with the virus, or traveled to countries suffering from the pandemic, then physical intimacy is still considered safe. But if it’s someone outside of the household, it is still advised to avoid close contact.The use of contraceptives is also recommended to avoid unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections.

But if either or both partners are sick with COVID-19 — recovering or recovered — the US’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shared the following ways to prevent the spread of the virus: not sharing bedding and bed, and abstaining from all intimate contact until: at least seven to 14 days after symptoms first started, when other symptoms have improved, and fever-free for at least 72 hours without the use of any medications.

If a person is sick, he or she should self-quarantine and observe the necessary preventative measures, including limiting the use of common spaces.

COVID-19 and family planning 

With the ECQ placed in Luzon since March 16, the Department of Health (DOH) reminded people to continue practicing family planning methods. Contraceptives are still safe to use despite the COVID-19 outbreak.

Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said that even in areas under ECQ, family planning services, devices and advice are available to the public in health centers. Barangay health workers can also hand out three-months-worth of condoms and birth control pills.

Contraception and family planning information and services are life-saving and important at all times — with or without a pandemic.

COVID-19, pregnancy and childbirth 

Studies are still determining what COVID-19 does to a developing pregnancy. Giving birth is already challenging and stressful, but going through it during a global crisis heightens it. Many expecting mothers are considering giving birth at home due to the country’s strained health systems. However, home births may be difficult for high-risk pregnancies.

Research is still on-going to determine whether pregnant women can get infected with the virus, but it is important to take precautions.

A safe and positive experience for pregnant women during pregnancy and childbirth include: being treated with respect and dignity, having a companion of choice present during delivery, clear communication by maternity staff, appropriate pain relief strategies, and mobility in labor where possible and birth position of choice. For pregnant women who are suspected or confirmed to be positive for COVID-19, WHO advised that caesarian section deliveries should only be performed when medically justified.

If COVID-19 is suspected or confirmed, health workers should take all appropriate precautions, including hand hygiene and appropriate use of protective equipment, to reduce the risks of infection to themselves and others.

Close contact and breastfeeding are also supported by WHO, even for COVID-positive mothers. As such, they should be supported to breastfeed safely with good respiratory hygiene, hold their newborn skin-to-skin, and share a room with their baby. WHO also reminds mothers to keep surfaces clean and to wash their hands before and after touching their babies.