INDIA: Grave concerns for young children and pregnant women amidst COVID-19 crisis

India could be facing thousands of additional deaths among children under five and an increase in maternal deaths, as hospitals and clinics are directing virtually all their staff and medicines to coping with COVID-19 patients, Save the Children warned today.

While the mortality rate for children under five has steadily been decreasing over the past decades in India, disruptions to maternal and child health services caused by the current spike in COVID-19 could undo some of the progress made, the organisation said.

As the health system is overstretched due to India’s second wave of corona-cases, newborns and very young children could miss out on life saving immunisations or treatment for diarrhoea, pneumonia or severe acute malnutrition. Pregnant women may be unable to access the health care they need, Save the Children warns.

Especially in rural areas, where access to medical facilities was limited even before the outbreak, the number of impacted children and new mothers is likely to rise. Many children’s centres, which were previously providing children with regular meals, have also been shut down, leaving many children without access to nutritious food.

Save the Children issues its warning based on an earlier report1, which estimated a 15 percent increase in child mortality due to the COVID-19 outbreak. The estimate did not take into account the current wave of cases or the near-collapse of India’s health system – and there are fears that the increase in deaths could now be much higher.

Dr Rajesh Khanna, Deputy Director of Health and Nutrition at Save the Children in India, said:
“We see it happening before our eyes: young children and mothers are not getting the care they so desperately need. Because of COVID-19, other treatments have come all but to a halt, which is especially dangerous for the very young. Almost one in five children in India are severely malnourished, and many of them need treatment.

“In some parts of the country people already had to travel an hour just to get to the nearest clinic, and usually these clinics are understaffed and under resourced – but with the current spike, even these clinics are focusing on COVID-19 patients. That means young mothers have to travel even further to get treatment for themselves or their children, and often they can’t afford that.

“Our teams tell us there are clinics that don’t have anything more than paracetamol to give people who are ill. The question of oxygen in these areas is a distant one. They are seeing pregnant women in the advanced stages of pregnancy who will have to give birth at home because all the health facilities in their districts are attending to COVID-19 patients. We’re worried that this leaves them at greater risk of complications or even death.

“We expect the situation to get even worse, because many people are leaving the cities for their home villages as there are no jobs or because they want to be with family. The risk of them bringing the virus with them, is real. As health care is already limited in the countryside, we’re heading for a disaster – which will impact young sick children and young mothers hardest.

“We need the support of the world, plain and simple. This disaster is impacting India deeply, and the country urgently needs support of its allies to keep the health system afloat. Not just for COVID-19 patients, but also for other diseases.”

Save the Children works in close cooperation with the authorities in cities and rural areas, where it provides health care supplies to communities, including oxygen, ventilators and medicines. It also helps people with finding health facilities that are not yet at full capacity, and acts as an intermediary between patients and ambulances. To ensure the health of young children and young mothers, the organisation works in communities to raise awareness on nutrition and health issues. For families who have lost their source of income due to the pandemic, Save the Children has cash grants available.