Prior to the national lockdown, Thulisa Nkumbi found out she was pregnant and was overjoyed by the prospect of being a mom-to be. But she fell ill a few weeks leading up to her due date, and when news of the coronavirus pandemic hit South Africa, Nkumbi moved in with her family and the lockdown followed. 

“I moved in with my family because I needed to be closer to clinics – Crossroads Clinic is very close to my family, as well as Mitchells Plain Hospital,” she says.  

Nkumbi is situated in the Western Cape and the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak in South Africa, and during the last weeks before her due date healthcare facilities were on high alert for Covid-19 cases 

As Dr Gabriele Fontana, Southern and Eastern region health adviser for the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) notesCovid-19’s burden on the healthcare system has the ability to overturn the gains made in maternal health in the region. 

The fear is that, combined Covid–19 containment measures such as lockdowns and curfews, health centres that are overwhelmed with the Covid-19 response, equipment shortages and a lack of skilled birth attendants, can unravel the gains made on reducing maternal mortality and neonatal mortality,” he explains.  

‘Shivering and cold’ 

Nkumbi’s ordeal started at end of April, at Mitchells Plain Hospital, where “no one was sanitising people as they came into the facility. 

“The waiting area in the hospital was not full but the nurses who attended to me were not helpful and then that’s when they started asking about Covid19 and they told me to go home and get PanadoI went home and was shivering and cold. I slept through the night, but my condition didn’t change,” she recounts. 

The next day, she recorded a high temperature but still had cold shivers. She was due to give birth in early May and wanted a clean bill of health before then. 

Nkumbi’s mother, No-Aslet Nkumbi, says that “the nurses never helped my daughter.” 

“On the first day I went to the hospital with her, I came back crying and my child was shivering and cold. We were told to go back home, and they said there is nothing they can do because they’re dealing with coronavirus patients,” No-Aslet adds. 

No one cared to look at me besides asking questions about coronavirus,” Nkumbi says. 

She explained her symptoms to the nurse and was told that its only an infection and that she must only come back when she’d due to give birth. However, the nurses wanted to check her temperature again, and immediately afterwards that she was put on a drip and told that she’d be moving to Mowbray Maternity Hospital.  

“Suddenly no nurses wanted to come close to me at all,” she adds. 

At Mowbray Maternity Hospital, she was again submitted to questions about coronavirus and her temperature. She was admitted to maternity wardbut according to her, the doctors felt she would be better taken care of at Groote Schuur Hospital 

Three hospitals later 

At the third and last hospital, Nkumbi was then put in isolation.  

“More doctors came in to see me, and suddenly everyone was shocked for attending to me without protection. Left alone in the room, was even more afraid that I may have coronavirus. But in the evening more doctors came and told me that I had a kidney infection, and that I’ll be put on antibiotics,” she says. 

Nkumbi’s mother also believes that the hispotal’s staff “sent her to Groote Schuur Hospital where she was isolated in a room because they thought she had coronavirus.” 

Although the diagnosis of kidney infection and subsequent antibiotics treatment led to Nkumbi visibly looking and feeling better, she was moved around in the hospital. According to Nkumbi, her food was left at the door of her room, nurses avoided cleaning her room and after giving birth, she was separated from her child 

“I spent most of my days crying, until a doctor explained that I don’t have coronavirus but an infection which could spread to other people or even the baby. My baby also had the infection and was moved to ICU but no one came to explain or let me know she was doing. 

Hospital standards in place 

After finishing her medication schedule, she could see her baby again. Nkumbi’s alleged mishandling and mistreatment at various healthcare facilities in Cape Town fly in the face of National Department of Health guidelines on maternal health standards during the coronavirus outbreak 

“Routine prenatal care includes screening pregnant women for symptoms of Covid-19. [If found positive] symptomatic mothers are nursed separately from all other women and are attended by delegated nurses who do not manage all other women. Health care workers are trained to take precautionary measures to ensure social distancing,” says National Department of Health spokesperson Popo Maja. 

Regarding being separated from one’s child after birth, Maja says this only happens in “severe cases”. 

“Each maternity ward has [a] dedicated section to manage women who are investigated for the disease based on the contact history and those who are confirmed to have the disease. Only in severe cases were the mother or baby is unwell that the two are separated […] to protect the babies from being infected. Mothers are encouraged to wear [a] mask but continue to breastfeed the babies.” – Health-e News