In just a few short weeks, Sonal Verma will welcome her first child. She has been busily nesting at her Abu Dhabi home, making clay figurines and stringing bunting for the baby’s bedroom, trying not to get too caught up in the swirl of news happening outside.
Verma is one of millions of women now facing the reality of giving birth during a global pandemic. A time that already comes with its own cache of emotions now sits beneath an added veil of worry, leaving many expectant mothers, understandably, on edge.
“Initially, when this broke out, I was optimistically thinking things would settle down as nothing lasts forever. But as the days pass, the optimism is reducing,” says Verma. “There are so many ifs and buts, as no one knows what’s in store for the future.”
While that may be the case, with a due date of Thursday, May 14, it is looking increasingly likely that Verma will go through labour as the virus is still affecting the UAE.
Cases have been increasing over the past week, but stricter measures have been put in place across the country to help stem the spread of Covid-19.
The nationwide sterilisation programme has been extended, limiting movement between the hours of 8pm and 6am, and all residents in Dubai are required to obtain a permit before leaving the house. Of course, medical emergencies such as going into labour are exempt, but the regulations still have a knock-on effect for those preparing to welcome a child.
“We were supposed to get someone arriving from India to help us out when I deliver, now I don’t know if that will be possible. We were supposed to shift into a three-bedroom home, I don’t know if that can happen.
"We had ordered a crib from a store, I don’t know if we will receive it on time,” Verma says. “We hadn’t bought many basic things as I was going to do it post-baby shower, which I had to cancel. Now I don’t know if we will be able to.”
Going through labour alone?
One of the biggest fears for mums, though, is the thought that they might have to go through labour alone. While the rules are different in all hospitals, in some places around the world, fathers are not being allowed into the room with their partners when they give birth.
“That is what I fear most,” says Toni Rogan Wehbe, who is just three weeks away from welcoming her second child with husband Roman.
"As we are getting closer, my worry is that my husband might not be able to be in the hospital room... I know of a few families in the UK where the husbands have not been allowed at the birth for safety reasons."
But even if no such rules come into play in the UAE, it still might be the reality Rogan Wehbe faces, as she also has 10-month-old daughter Harley, who was due to be cared for by her mother, visiting from England.
Travel restrictions mean that can no longer happen. “My husband will now have to be with our daughter,” she says. “It’s going to be a pretty tough time, I guess, but as long as our family is healthy, I'm OK with everything.”
Jessica Marshall finds herself in a similar situation. The Canadian teacher, 32, lives with her husband and two-year-old son in Abu Dhabi after moving here six months ago. She is set to give birth in six weeks.
“My mum was meant to come over to help with my toddler while my husband and I go to the hospital to deliver – she can no longer come, it looks like,” she says. “I don’t know what I will do with my toddler when I go into labour as we don’t have live-in help.
“Every time I go to the hospital for just a regular pregnancy appointment, there are more masks, paperwork and questions to answer. While I completely respect the effort they are going to, it makes it so much more stressful just to be there.”
'Trying to remain calm for the health of my baby'
However, Marshall is trying to remain positive. “I’m trying to remain calm for the health of my baby and to not give my toddler any worries, but it is a very scary reality to be delivering in a global pandemic,” she says. “I’m trying to not let it get in the way of this magical time in our lives, but it’s very hard.”
Logistics aside, there are, of course, the added health fears the virus has brought about. There have been many questions about the health implications of giving birth during the pandemic, and as the outbreak continues, many of them remain unanswered.
Like any virus, pregnant women are at risk of infection, although early studies suggest that there is no risk of the virus spreading from the mother to the baby in the womb.
“Please remember there is no need to panic about the infection, but at the same time you need to be careful and cautious to protect yourself,” says Dr Shiva Harikrishnan, consultant obstetrician and gynecologist at Medcare Hospitals and Medical Centres.
“Approximately 90 per cent of coronavirus infection in pregnant women will be of a milder variety and Covid-19-positive pregnant women can deliver normally. Caesarean section is reserved only for obstetric indications.”
Her advice is largely common sense: stay at home where possible, avoid unnecessary trips to the hospital and keep in touch with your obstetrician via WhatsApp – steps most expectant mothers will already be following. Gentle exercise and avoiding negative social media won't hurt, either, she says.
“Practising yoga at home has really helped to keep me centred and maintain my sanity,” says Verma. “The positive of this situation is that it has really given me time to bring out my creative side.”
But, of course, there are tough moments. And there will likely be more ahead, as Covid-19 continues to tighten its grip on the world. For Marshall, anxiety ahead of labour is beginning to build.
“My first labour was quite traumatic, so the thought of delivering again already makes me quite anxious, and being in self-quarantine with a busy toddler at 34 weeks pregnant during a global pandemic has added a tremendous amount of stress,” she says.
“I completely understand why all these measures have been taken, but let’s not pretend it’s not hard.”
For Rogan Wehbe, who runs a fitness company with her husband, the slowdown has simply meant more time to prepare for the family’s new arrival. “To be honest, self-isolation has given us a break from work and gives us more time to spend with our daughter, who we are seeing progress in every day. We feel very prepared for the new baby coming along,” she says.
"We are lucky to be living in Dubai where we still have delivery service from grocery shops and supermarkets stocked with full shelves. It takes away the worry of running out of essentials like milk and nappies when the baby does arrive."