Just last year when over half of humanity was confined to their homes due to COVID-19 preventive measures, Karex, a Malaysian contraceptives manufacturer predicted a global condom shortage as the pandemic shuttered factories and disrupted supply chains.
This came as Malaysia, one of the world’s top rubber producers and a major source of condoms, imposed a nationwide lockdown – known locally as the Movement Control Order (MCO). The MCO was implemented sometime in mid-March 2020 for several months.
“Border closings and other restrictive measures are affecting transportation and production in a number of countries and regions,” said a United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) spokesperson back in April 2020.
“A shortage of condoms, or any contraceptive, could lead to an increase in unintended pregnancies, with potentially devastating health and social consequences for adolescent girls, women and their partners and families,” the spokesperson added.
Goh Miah Kiat, Chief Executive Officer of Karex said that the company had seen growing demand as people worldwide stayed home over virus fears, with Indian media reporting that condom sales had jumped 25 to 35 percent in the week after the country announced its lockdown last year.
A number of studies and organisations have discussed the “devastating” effects of COVID-19 on women and girls. These include job losses, forced and early marriages, gender-based violence, and increased poverty. Moreover, the pandemic has also impacted women’s and girls’ sexual and reproductive health and their access to health care.
Today, some 12 million women may have lost access to contraception due to health disruptions as a result of the pandemic, with the poorest and most vulnerable hit the hardest, according to the UNFPA.
Based on 115 low-and-middle-income countries, the UN sexual and reproductive health agency found that a loss of family planning services for around three months had likely led to 1.4 million unplanned pregnancies.
Natalia Kanem, UNFPA Executive Director explained that “in wealthier countries, fewer babies are being born, whereas in developing countries – more babies, due to a lack of access to contraceptive services”.
The agency said that there were concentrated declines in family planning services in April and May last year, nevertheless, many countries were able to restore access after that. Based on its survey of more than 70 countries, it was revealed that 41 percent reported that services by family planning facilities were disrupted, while 56 percent said they were maintained.
In Indonesia, the National Population and Family Planning Board (BKKBN) reported that there were at least 420,000 unintended pregnancies in the country from March to September 2020. The organisation also projected last December that unwanted pregnancies would rise by 15 percent amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Women are often blamed for conceiving amid the pandemic. However, our members across the nations have received reports that it has been getting difficult to access contraception," said Dati Fatimah, consultant of the Australia Indonesia Partnership for Justice (AIPJ2).
She also explained that the health crisis had deterred a lot of people from using or continuing to use contraceptives as they were reluctant to visit health facilities over the fear of COVID-19 transmission.
Whereas in the Philippines, which is said to have the second-highest teen pregnancy rate in Southeast Asia, the Commission on Population and Development (POPCOM) warned that the figure could rise as much as 20 percent amid the pandemic.
POPCOM said the number of adolescent girls 15 years old or younger who gave birth in 2019 rose by seven percent from the previous year. In 2019, at least 2,411 girls aged 10 to 14 years old gave birth – an average of seven giving birth every day. The figure had risen threefold since 2000 when 755 girls gave birth.
“The pandemic has not only worsened the difficulty of (getting) prenatal and other maternal services but also family planning services that is very crucial in mitigating cases of early pregnancies,” said Lydio Español, POPCOM’s Regional Director.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the largest number of unsafe abortions occur in Asia, with most of them in south and central Asia. Some of the barriers to accessing safe abortion include restrictive laws, poor availability of services, high cost, and stigma.
In developing countries, one in three pregnancy terminations is carried out in dangerous conditions.
Unfortunately, the pandemic could further exacerbate the risk of unsafe abortions, with the UNFPA predicting that thousands of deaths from unsafe abortions and complicated births due to inadequate access to emergency care could potentially occur.
A report from the Foundation for Reproductive Health Services India estimates that the pandemic could result in an additional 834,042 unsafe abortions and 1,743 maternal deaths, though the figure could be higher.
In some countries where abortion is illegal or stigmatised, the situation could be grimmer.
“Abortion should not be stigmatised, especially when it puts women’s lives at risk,” said Nisha Sabanayagam from Malaysia’s All Women’s Action Society.
“Women should also be allowed to express their rights over their bodies freely and this includes saying no to unwanted sexual activities, including sex without the usage of contraceptives and being allowed the option of safe and medically supervised termination of pregnancy,” she added.