When Rwanda announced its first lockdown on March 22, 2020, Axella Kana found out she was pregnant with her first child. She would later have to juggle single motherhood, university studies, a part-time job, and a pandemic.
Kana, 26, gave birth to a baby girl in November 2020, in the middle of the pandemic. She endured hours of labour without any of her family members present, due to the hospital’s Covid-19 protocols. As she gasped for air, nurses reminded her that she was not allowed to remove her surgical mask.
She was all by herself throughout the pregnancy and after the child was born, because her family and friends were either unable to reach her or not allowed to. The country was under strict coronavirus guidelines.
“Motherhood is the best thing that ever happened to me, but it is also one of the toughest things I have had to do. I had to protect myself from catching the virus at all times, and everyone I could reach out to was struggling as well,” Kana recounted.
For over a year and a half, the pandemic emergency measures adopted by governments to prevent the spread of the coronavirus infection negatively affected mothers-to-be and new mothers, increasing the likelihood of anxiety and post-partum depression.
After Clementine Uwineza, 23, had her first child in March 2021, her life turned upside down. Her child was born with complications that required travelling to the hospital often. She started having suicidal thoughts.
“The baby was crying all the time. I didn’t have any money. I had no one to turn to. I was all alone and I feared for my sick baby. I remember having to walk for eight kilometres to the nearest hospital because public transport was out of operations due to Covid-19,” Uwineza said.
Even for mothers who had given birth before, having a baby during the lockdown was difficult.
Anet Umukundwa, a stay-at-home mother gave birth to her third child on the day Rwanda recorded its first Covid-19 case on March 14, 2020. She had a C-section and had to spend days on a hospital bed. She thought the restrictions would only last for weeks.
Umukundwa started reading reports on how pregnant and nursing women are at higher risk of becoming critically ill with Covid-19, and how babies as young as five months were dying from it.
“I started cutting friends and family off. I demanded that my husband, who was still going to work, get tested every few days,” Umukundwa said.
“Protecting” her child was the hardest part of being a mother for Marie Ange Mukaneza, a working first-time mother. She would only leave the house on essential errands. She would carry extra face masks and wash her hands as many times as possible.
“I still opt to work from home even though I am vaccinated. I just don’t want to risk it,” Mukaneza said.
Although the mothers are aware of how the pandemic has changed how their babies will grow up, they are hopeful and willing to sacrifice whatever it will require to provide a better life for their children.
“My baby is my comfort. I called him 'Mukiza' or 'Saviour' because I believe he saved me. I now live because of him. I want to give him a better future. I pray he will not have to go through a pandemic as I did,” said Uwineza, who later opened a restaurant to support her small family.