With the COVID-19 crisis putting a heavy burden on the healthcare systems, at least 20 million women, including pregnant women, in the Americas are being affected.

In her presentation during the Pan American Health Organisation’s (PAHO) virtual press briefing on COVID-19 Wednesday, PAHO’s director Carissa Etienne put the spotlight on the devastating health, social and economic impact that COVID has had on women.

In this pandemic, she said hospitals and clinics have struggled to provide essential health services that women depend on for their health and wellbeing.

“According to UN estimates up to 20 million women in the Americas will have their birth control disrupted during the pandemic either because services are unavailable or because women will no longer have the means to pay for contraceptives.”

But, more than that Etienne said pregnancy and newborn care have been disrupted in nearly half of the countries in the Americas leaving expectant and new mothers at risk.

Etienne warned, “If this continues the pandemic is expected to obliterate more than 20 years of progress in expanding women’s access to family planning and tackling maternal deaths in the region. Nearly all maternal deaths are preventable and even getting back to pre-pandemic levels of mortality which were all already high could take more than a decade.”

Due to the changes in their immune system during pregnancy, women are vulnerable to infections like the COVID-19 virus, yet, she said some may be going through their entire pregnancies without being seen by a doctor at a time when care couldn’t be more critical. “Once they get sick they also tend to develop more serious symptoms that require incubation and which can often put the baby and mother at risk,” she added.

Data from 24 countries, she said, indicates that more than 200,000 pregnant women been infected with COVID and at least 1,000 have died due to complications from the virus. As International Day of Action on Women’s Health is commemorated this week, she urged countries to ensure that women and girls have access to health services like sexual and reproductive health services and pregnancy and newborn-related care during the COVID response.

While there continues to be spikes in some countries in the Americas, Etienne was concerned many people are no longer adhering to public health regulations that have been effective. Noting that last week the WHO announced that COVID deaths are being significantly undercounted with new projections indicating that many more people are dying from COVID complications or from the pandemic indirect impacts like disruptions to essential services that have put their health at risk.

She added that COVID’s true global 2020 death toll is now estimated at closer to three million people nearly double the figures reported last year.

“Worryingly half of those deaths have occurred here in the Americas, demonstrating the oversized, outsized impact that this pandemic has had in our region.”