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Philippine couples have more free time to make babies amid lockdown

By Luz Wendy T. Noble, Reporter

RENALEE M. CANILAO-FLORES, 27, got pregnant at the height of the coronavirus pandemic in June.

She thinks being able to work from home allowed her body to recuperate — she had a miscarriage in 2019 and had her right ovary removed — and made pregnancy possible again.

“After more than six months of healing, we tried to have a baby and it was a success,” Ms. Flores, an administrative officer at a local bank, said in a Facebook Messenger chat.

BW Bullseye 2020-focusA pandemic that has sickened almost half a million and killed more than 9,000 people in the Philippines has given couples more time together and would likely result in a baby boom this year after years of easing population growth, according to experts.

The lockdown also led to hundreds of thousands of women failing to get access to birth control, resulting in tales of unplanned pregnancies.

About 1.8 million babies were expected to be born this year, and unintended pregnancies during the lockdown might bring this up by 751,000 to as many as 2.56 million, according to a July study by the University of the Philippines (UP) Population Institute and United Nations Population Fund.

The Commission on Population and Development (PopCom) expects fewer births of about two million since one of the world’s strictest lockdowns did not last nine straight months, Executive Director Juan Antonio A. Perez, III said.

Dionabel F. San Agustin, 27, is another mother whose pregnancy was unplanned. She got pregnant with her third child just as her partner, who earns P500 daily, got a new job as a warehouseman.

She stopped using the intrauterine device and pills as birth control methods, having felt that these didn’t suit her well.

“It’s just the way it is,” Ms. San Agustin, who seemed dismissive about her condition, said in an interview in Filipino outside a room that her family was renting in a depressed district in Sta. Cruz, Manila. “This pregnancy just sprouted.”

The Philippine population was 108.1 million in 2019, according to World Bank estimates. About 14 million of these people are squeezed in Metro Manila, according to PopCom.

Live births in the country decreased by 6.8% to 1.67 million in 2018 from six years earlier, when a landmark law allowing the government to provide free contraceptives to the poor took effect in the predominantly Catholic nation.

Majority of babies conceived during the lockdown would be born to low-income families, UP economist and former Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Ernesto M. Pernia said.

“Additional births are always a blessing, if and only if the families where they are going to grow have the capacity to provide adequate healthcare, education and attention,” he said by telephone.

Presidential spokesman Harry L. Roque, Jr. in October said the looming baby boom should not be regarded as bad news, although family planning is highly encouraged.

“We don’t view the children who will be born as a problem, we view them as a blessing,” he said. “Our greatest resource is still our population.”

Angelica B. Sta. Maria, 19, is an expectant mother to a lockdown baby who will be born by early January.

“I was not supposed to get pregnant but I had my implant removed in January because I feel like it didn’t suit my body,” she said in an interview that interrupted her morning bath at a cramped alley outside a 12 square-meter room she was renting in Sta. Cruz.

“We were planning only to have another baby once my son turns five. He’s only two now.”

Aside from the baby boom, the government is also watching out for a potential rise in maternal deaths, PopCom’s Mr. Perez said in a Zoom Cloud Meetings interview.

A study by the Health Futures Foundation, Inc. found an increase in maternal deaths in coronavirus high-risk areas such as Quezon City and Cebu City compared with levels in 2019.

The higher death rate among mothers was absent in areas such as Alitagtag, Batangas and Zamboanga, which are considered low-risk for the COVID-19 virus.

Mr. Perez traced this to delayed maternal care after some government health facilities were converted into COVID-19 centers. One example was the Philippine General Hospital in the capital, which used to be a go-to for poor expectant mothers.

Many of these lockdown babies are expected to be born between January and June. Mr. Perez said mothers would suffer unless local government units and hospitals get the budget they need.

“The health sector will be under even more strain starting (this) year,” he said. “I’m afraid that the burden of reproductive healthcare will go back to the community because the hospitals are not ready to provide the services.”

Some mothers have turned to lying-in clinics, while others have hired midwives to give birth at home, Mr. Perez said.

The lockdown has forced couples to discuss birth control, he said, noting that family planning is both a health and population measure because it cuts maternal deaths and poverty.

“Many people who did not use family planning before are now afraid of unplanned pregnancies because their spouses are jobless,” the population expert said. “They are aware of the economic hardships they might have to face.”

Lyka Mae D. Lucena, a 25-year-old social worker from Manila’s Ermita district, had her second implant procedure in November to avoid getting pregnant by her expatriate boyfriend, with whom she started living with during the lockdown.

While he’s keen on building a family, Ms. Lucena said she wanted to focus on her career and postgraduate studies for now.

“I want to be financially stable first because in my line of work as a social worker, I’ve seen how relationships turned sour because of economic problems,” she said in a Messenger call.

Ms. Flores, the bank employee, considers her pregnancy a blessing even if she had a difficult time commuting for her checkup. She also had been unable to satisfy her cravings for red guava and guyabano.

Meanwhile, Ms. Sta. Maria is looking forward to going back to her part-time job as a dishwasher once she gives birth.

These days, she grapples with milk supply for her son along with her own pregnancy needs. The P1,500 that she gets weekly from a partner who has since left her isn’t enough, she said.

“If he comes back, I will accept him, if only for our two kids,” she said, reminding herself about the hardships of raising a child alone. “But he already has a new partner now.”

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