Black Maternal Health Week is an annual awareness week to share information, resources, and solutions to promote perinatal health for Black birthing people. This year, partners across the country are mobilizing to ensure that all Black mamas have the rights, respect, and resources to thrive throughout their lives.
Black women in the United States are four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women because of the deep and reaching effects of racism and white supremacy on our lives. Efforts to fix this inequity range from theory, art, social justice, health systems, research, and policy. People are unifying to dismantle white supremacy everywhere and give all Black mamas what they deserve—a birth experience where they feel the utmost care and respect. The Black Mamas Matter Alliance has brought together collaborative partners all across the country, Black mothers, who are partnering to improve health and wellness. Because when providers and systems uphold white supremacy in any form, the door is left open for Black mothers to experience harm. National Birth Equity Collaborative and other health system researchers are using culturally relevant methods to create a patient-reported experience measure of respectful care.
Due to COVID-19 safety precautions in hospitals and health clinics, parents are dealing with a new normal, at least for the next couple months. Birthing people are feeling uncertain about their birth plans and the systems themselves, having to manage expectations at the rapid pace of a pandemic.
According to Kay Matthews, Founder of Shades of Blue Project centered in Houston, Texas, “COVID-19 has just been an added layer of barriers. Moms being only able to have one person in the birth space depending on the facility will definitely have its long-term effects on the mamas mental health.” Now, with the recent changes, many facilities aren’t allowing mothers to be accompanied. These quickly changing hospital regulations are making it so that birthing people, and their support systems, are not getting the most timely information.
“This pandemic has brought on anxiety and fears that did not exist prior, and so we are closely monitoring this because the amount of maternal mental health services and resources needed in the postpartum period will certainly increase,” Matthews says. “Talks of how these mamas mentally feel right now has not been openly addressed and yet again by not addressing it we continue to have women suffering in silence.”
In a recent webinar, Dr. Joia Crear-Perry of NBEC was asked how the pandemic response would impact the effects of a health system that has yet to contain implicit bias and racial microaggressions. The racial bias that already affects the quality of care some Black mamas receive could be exacerbated by the pandemic response. If racial microaggressions and biases—the seeds of white supremacy—were already falling off the tree, what do we tell mamas now that the trunk is being shaken? When asked, what ways can we support or advocate for Black mothers when hospitals are prioritizing COVID prevention.
Tamela Milan of Bridges to Bond located in Chicago, Illinois, said, “Every time I get information, I disseminate it out to the mothers in our program. This is a teachable moment and a good time to get them connected to their devices, because this system of telehealth may be more long term than we think.” Amidst this COVID-19 climate, many practitioners are moving into telehealth being the main option of seeing patients. “We still need our community health workers and doulas to lay eyes on them,” Milan says. “Pregnancy needs to be treated like a chronic illness. A mother that is nine months pregnant needs to be seen.” This is part of providing respectful care.
Respectful care means that every pregnant person, no matter the outcome, must be respected, understanding that all birthing people have a birth story and that no experience is ever the same. The experience measure would allow maternity patients to evaluate their care and allow hospitals to quantify experiences of disrespect and racial microaggressions in their care. Health service quality improvements are commonplace in all the facilities we receive care; yet newer-and Blacker- approaches are shaking up the field. Innovation is coming from projects based in approaches created by Black researchers, and by listening to voices and experiences of Black mamas in places around the country.
“We should not have to beg to be treated fairly and with proper care it should be mandatory not optional,” Matthews tells ESSENCE. It is imperative for health providers to maintain that standard, even now during the COVID-19 pandemic when the focus is to get people giving birth in and out of the hospital as quickly as possible.
“We need access to this type of care because it is what’s right. For so many years we have been mistreated and used in so many ways throughout medical science that now more than ever is the time for this type of treatment to stop,” Matthews continued.
She, along with Milan, and many others felt it important to recruit local mamas in the NBEC Mother’s Voices project because it helped present an opportunity for Black mamas to participate in changing the health system for all; to be part of something bigger than themselves.
“Black mothers need to be heard, and they need to know that someone is listening,” Milan said.
COVID-19 is causing more death in the Black community because the environments that we are often relegated to. The most privileged of us can make a hefty salary and feel disconnected to the pain that many of us feel from this pandemic. But money was never the cure when that individual leaves the large apartment complex with tight hallways, rides the metro to their essential job, and takes their daily medications for the asthma and hypertension they received from their parents.
White supremacy itself is a comorbidity, waiting to make a bad situation worse.
Community based organization leaders agree: to really give respectful care to Black mamas it has to start within the system and compassion is one of the main things providers can offer, especially during COVID-19. according to Matthews.
“Acknowledge your patient’s existence. Respect them at the moment in time in which they are seeking care, and support them whether they accept or reject your expertise, and be willing to offer alternative options. By doing these three things constantly we can change the current outlook of the care that is currently being given.”
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