On February 27, I summited Mount Kilimanjaro and immediately had a desperate urge to pee. I should have known then, squatting in the snow next to the sign marking the summit, that I was pregnant. But it wasn’t until after I had come down the mountain, exhausted and nauseous, that two little lines confirmed what I had hoped for: I was pregnant.
I thought accidentally climbing Kilimanjaro in my first trimester would be my greatest pregnancy story—one about unexpected joy, about harnessing a strength I didn’t know I had. Then the coronavirus arrived.
Now, here I am, eight weeks and one day pregnant, on lockdown in my home in Barcelona, and I am hoping the baby growing in my womb, who made it to the top of Kilimanjaro, will survive the worst public-health crisis the world has seen in 100 years.
For the past decade, I have covered political upheaval, wars, and humanitarian disasters as a journalist—most recently with the Fuller Project. I prepared for this outbreak and eventual lockdown like I have in the past, when I worked in Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, and Afghanistan. My husband and I have put together a series of emergency plans. We have pulled out enough cash to last us for weeks. We have stocked up on the food and medications we need. We are monitoring local news for updates. We leave comfortable shoes and our passports in the front hall of our home, just in case we have to leave quickly. We bolt the door at night.
Spain has been on lockdown for a week. At least 1,350 people have died here. And nearly 25,000 people have tested positive for the coronavirus, 1,612 of whom are in intensive care. Spain is currently the fourth-hardest-hit country in the world, behind China, Italy, and Iran, and despite Spain’s advanced and affordable health-care system, the coronavirus could mean disaster.
Police in Spain now have the authority to question, fine, and arrest people if they don’t abide by strict lockdown orders. In Barcelona, Gaudi’s towering Sagrada Família, normally teeming with eager tourists, is eerily empty. The city’s sandy, once-bustling beaches are deserted. Outside grocery stores, some of the few places open, people quietly queue, graciously accepting the plastic gloves handed out by employees. At my local pharmacy, also still open, the pharmacist handed me a flimsy cloth mask when I told her I was pregnant. They had run out of medical masks days ago, and health professionals don’t have enough. “Put a menstrual pad inside,” she said, smiling, to help filter the air.
“Self-isolation and social distancing will save lives. I believe it could save mine.”
I can no longer freely walk off my morning sickness (or rather, all-day sickness) in the park, go to prenatal yoga classes, or grab lunch with a doula or a friend to calm my worried pregnant mind. Though difficult, to be sure, I am grateful for these emergency measures Spain has implemented. While I am otherwise healthy, I was born with a rare metabolic condition called medium-chain acyl-CoA dehydrogenase deficiency, which, in short, means my body struggles to burn stored energy for survival. I survive mostly on my last meal, and live a pretty normal life. But in illness, my body has to work even harder to keep up. If my body can’t keep up, I could die. My MCAD, coupled with pregnancy, which means I’m slightly immunocompromised, likely puts me in the high-risk category—though research on pregnancy and COVID-19 is scarce.
Self-isolation and social distancing will save lives. I believe it could save mine.
Lately, I have been scrolling through Instagram and wondering why friends and acquaintances in the United States are still going to parties, lounging in the sun at crowded pools, and living their life as if the coronavirus won’t disrupt it. Millions of Americans might need hospitalization, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and hospitals are unlikely to have enough beds or ventilators. The U.S. could soon see infection levels as high as those in Italy, where doctors face the impossible choice of deciding whom to save, because they simply cannot save them all.
The other day, as my husband and I sat at my doctor’s office eagerly awaiting my first prenatal scan, I overheard a secretary talking on the phone with a pregnant woman who had called, frantic. She had all the symptoms of COVID-19, and she didn’t know what to do. The flustered secretary told her not to come to the hospital, to instead call the government coronavirus hotline. But that hotline has been overwhelmed; too many people are calling in. I bit my lip to avoid crying, instead trying to focus on the thought of my baby’s heartbeat, which I prayed we’d hear a few minutes later. We did, and I felt a moment of relief.
I am not alone in this experience. Around the world, women are navigating pregnancy during the coronavirus pandemic. They are worried. Their access to reproductive health care might be limited. They are giving birth in hospitals that are on lockdown, many of them separated from family members.
When my husband and I talked about our emergency plan, I asked him what we would do if I miscarried or couldn’t walk, with mass transit and taxis limited and health systems overwhelmed. “I would carry you,” he said, matter-of-factly. The thought of him carrying me through checkpoints to get to our obstetrician, an hour away on foot, or to the ER, is perhaps the most frightening of my life. It reminds me of the survival stories I have borne witness to over the past few years while covering how war and other crises affect women.
I relish the little moments now—watering my plants in our garden in a little patch of sun, waving to my elderly upstairs neighbor as she quietly hangs laundry, clapping along to the Catalan music my neighbors across the street blast for us all to enjoy. I breathe deeply and focus on the little spark of life growing inside me.
And I share my joy. As millions of people across the globe self-isolate to protect themselves and their communities, the loneliness can feel overwhelming. Instead of keeping my pregnancy a secret until the coveted 12-week mark, when the risk of miscarriage drops dramatically (but does not disappear), I am telling friends, family, colleagues, and even strangers. Now I’m telling you.
In between obsessing over pregnancy apps (today, apparently, my baby is the size of a raspberry) and inspecting my bump to see whether it’s growing (it’s not yet, no matter how hard I stare at it), I connect online with other moms-to-be in Spain and around the world. How will we get to the doctor? Why am I craving strawberries? How do we stay calm? Will our parents be able to visit before the baby is born? After? How can we buy strollers and cribs and onesies during a lockdown? What will happen to the baby if my husband or I get a high fever, or worse yet, pneumonia?
Every evening, Spaniards across the country open their windows, applauding and crying for the country’s health workers, who are risking their lives to save lives. I clap and cry too. I imagine myself, in some seven months’ time, safely giving birth to a healthy baby, one of those health workers standing with me, smiling. I am hopeful.