By Sara Gomez Armas
Manila, Sep 3 (efe-epa).- Jocelyn Pascua, a 30-year-old from the Philippines, has had to wait four months to go to one of the Likhaan family planning clinics in Manila and change her contraceptive implant that expired in April, a waiting marked by the worry of fathering another child.
Due to the difficulties of access to contraceptive methods due to the COVID-19 crisis, the
Philippines awaits a “baby boom” in 2021 with more than 2 million births -the highest figure in two decades-, which will foreseeably make the country exceed the barrier of 110 million inhabitants.
The strict confinement imposed in large areas of the Philippines to contain COVID-19, the restriction of movements and the suspension of transportation, prevented Jocelyn from traveling the 30 kilometers that separate Cavite, her city, where there are no free family planning clinics like Likhaan, From the capital.
“My husband worked in construction and was unemployed due to the pandemic. These months I preferred to save money to feed my family than to spend it on transport to come here,” Joceyn, who already has three children, told EFE at Likhaan clinic in Tondo, the poorest district of Manila.
There, the flow of patients has increased in recent weeks as Manila eased the quarantine slightly, with women who, like Jocelyn, want to catch up on the delays in contraception. Many are already pregnant and seek the medical attention public hospitals in the capital, overwhelmed by COVID-19, cannot provide.
A joint study by the University of the Philippines and the UN Population Fund indicates that the pandemic has caused some 220,000 additional unplanned pregnancies in the country – mainly in the most disadvantaged communities -, a figure that could reach 750,000 if the quarantine lasts until the end of the year, 15 percent among those under 20 years of age.
Globally, the UN estimates that 47 million women will lose access to contraception due to the pandemic, which could result in 7 million unintended pregnancies. In the Philippines, the government estimates that 3.7 million women have had their reproductive health services disrupted and 400,000 will abandon them altogether.
“We are receiving more requests about how to get prenatal check-ups. I was surprised. There’s a hike of that kind of request. Sometimes, when I spoke with the pregnant patients, they told me it’s because of the lockdown, because they missed their follow-ups for contraceptives. They couldn’t go, they had sex with their partners and they got pregnant,” Mark Calsona, Likhaan social worker, explains to EFE.
This is the case of Aileen Joktown, 27, and four months pregnant, who already has two children aged 10 and 6.
“The hospital closest to my house is closed and others do not accept non-COVID-19 patients. I was very worried, I did not know where I could give birth until a neighbor recommended Likhaan,” she told EFE while waiting her turn for her first check-up since her pregnancy.
“When the baby is born, I will put on a contraceptive implant – its effect lasts three years – because I don’t want any more children,” Aileen said amid the difficulties of raising a large family in Baseco, one of the capital’s largest shantytowns, aggravated by the pandemic as her husband lost his job.
According to Calsona, Filipinos from poor communities suffer a “double burden” in this crisis.
“There’s a double burden for women in this pandemic. On one hand, they are scared to go out to the clinics to get their birth control supplies and check-ups. On the other hand, they are scared to get pregnant during a pandemic that has made health and income security so uncertain,” she said.
Of the 1,000 patients that the Tondo clinic treated monthly before the pandemic, in July they did not reach 700. This pattern is repeated in the other four Likhaan centers in the metropolitan area, a pioneer institution in providing free reproductive health services since two decades ago, when talking about contraception in the Philippines was taboo.
The Philippines is one of the countries in Asia with the highest birth rate – 2.92 births per woman – with a special incidence of teenage pregnancies, a social problem that the government declared a “national emergency” last year.
In the last decade, 1.2 million Filipino girls between the ages of 10 and 19 have had at least one child, an upward trend: in 2002 6.3 percent of adolescents became pregnant, while in 2013 it was 13.6 percent, according to data from the Population and Development Commission (POPCOM).
In light of these figures, the government last year launched a campaign to prevent these teenage pregnancies, which play an important role in perpetuating poverty, as girls have to drop out of school and when they enter the labor market make 87 percent of the average salary of other girls their age.
“We foresee that because of the restrictions of movement as well as the reduction of access to family planning supplies, there will be at least one pregnancy for every three women with an unmet need for family planning,” said Juan Antonio Perez, director of POPCOM, who fears that recent efforts to expand reproductive health services, especially among adolescents, will be ruined by COVID-19.