On the afternoon of April 6, Pramila Devi Kol, 26, went into labor. Her husband, Sajjan Kumar Kol, dialed the emergency helpline 108 to call an ambulance to get her to the hospital in time for the delivery. The operator reassured him they had dispatched an ambulance, but almost an hour went by and there was no vehicle in sight. With Pramila in pain, Sajjan panicked and set out on foot to find their own transportation.
“I was very worried, she was suffering from pain and the ambulance hadn’t arrived,” Sajjan says in Hindi, recounting the day his third child was born. He is a daily wage worker who picks up an odd job in the fields or as a construction worker.
The Kol family lives in Garbhe, a village of approximately 600 people situated amid forests in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. The nearest primary health center is about 17 kilometres (approximately 10 miles) away and women in the village depend on local Anganwadi centres — rural childcare clinics — for childbirth assistance.
Those Anganwadis currently remain closed due to the pandemic, leaving pregnant women like Pramila in a vulnerable state. And because coronavirus infections in the Garbhe village were relatively low, regional health authorities, locals say, have redirected the limited medical resources — including ambulances — to neighboring towns where COVID-19 infection rates were much higher.
With no medical help available that day, Pramila’s mother-in-law and aunt delivered her third child at home.
As the second wave of COVID-19 ravages India, pregnant women in the country’s hinterland are suffering in unexpected ways. Some women in rural India are choosing home births as they are afraid to head over to a nearby hospital fearing exposure to the coronavirus. On Wednesday morning, another woman was forced to have a home birth in a small village in Orissa as the ambulance they called for also did not reach on time.
In the nearby state of Jharkhand, a 22-year-old pregnant woman, Anita Devi, was exhausted trying to find a hospital bed. Eight months pregnant, her husband tried to get her admitted to multiple hospitals but they were turned away as the hospitals were filled with COVID-19 patients. Devi and her husband decided to head back. She died on her way home.
For families like the Kol’s, a home birth doesn’t just mean battling with life or delivering a child in exceptional circumstances, it also means not being eligible for government maternity benefits which she would receive had she delivered the child at a primary health centre. For a family who earns approximately $40 per month, government benefits are a lifeline.
When Sajjan left his one-room house with a tiled roof to find help, Pramila’s painful screams could be heard by their neighbors. An hour later, when he returned almost expecting the worst, he was relieved to hear the faint cry of his newborn.
“I couldn’t believe it,” says Sajjan. “My wife was so brave. She looked at me and said there’s no need to worry now.”