The story idea seemed clear when I pitched it: write an article about Paraguay’s efforts to save its women and babies from pre-eclampsia, a deadly yet silent disease that is now virtually unknown in Europe thanks to medical advances.
Coronavirus had different plans.
I was lucky enough to travel to Paraguay in February before border closures took effect. I walked freely into hospitals to interview doctors, patients and healthcare officials about pre-eclampsia and the fight to curb maternal mortality rates. People were generous with their time and their stories and I felt privileged to be there.
However, by the time it came for me to write about the article, Covid 19 had changed health reporting forever. How does a journalist cover an underreported deadly illness in the midst of the first global pandemic in over 100 years? The story had evolved, and I had to run to keep up with it and adapt my reporting accordingly.
While keeping in touch with people I had met on the ground, I realised I was witnessing a fragile healthcare system falling apart. The arrival of coronavirus in March exacerbated this situation by stretching already thin resources. By the beginning of May, the Health Ministry reported hundreds of cases with 10 deaths, including much-needed doctors. Authorities enforced a strict lockdown with limited movement outside houses and most businesses closed. Hospitals were refitted to handle Covid 19 cases weeks after the worst dengue fever outbreak in a decade infected thousands; including President Mario Abdo.
“Pre-eclampsia is a big challenge in Paraguay but coronavirus is the biggest challenge ever faced in modern medicine,” said Gustavo Brítez Arbués, a gynecologist from Asuncion. “All of our resources must be directed to fight this virus but in a country with limited resources, my fear is that we have even less resources to fight pre-eclampsia.”
Another important part of my article was following the work of the Juan Rassmuss Echecopar Foundation in helping the government reduce pre-eclampsia cases through training and providing medical equipment. Their first year of working with local hospitals was showing promising results.
However, as these advances come under threat from coronavirus, the foundation and the government had to become creative to ensure they don’t lose any ground, by developing an online training program to reach as many women and medical professionals as possible, despite the lockdown. They also developed a phone help line for pregnant women to call and receive medical information from healthcare workers because expectant mothers couldn’t go to the hospital due to Covid 19.
“Women and babies are dying in their homes because they’re afraid of going to the hospital and catching Covid 19,” said Katherine Young Barker, the foundation’s pre-eclampsia coordinator. “We’re working as quickly as possible to make sure we can reach out to as many women as possible to save more lives.”
For some, it is too late. Dozens of women have died from pre-eclampsia during the Covid 19 outbreak because they didn’t go to the hospital, according to health officials.
Meanwhile, healthcare workers continue to fight a two-front war between pre-eclampsia and coronavirus to save as many lives as possible in a medical system that is being pushed to the brink.
It made it difficult to decide what to include in my article because all of this had become integral parts of the story. In the end, I had to pivot the piece to include some details on Covid 19, which I was worried would overshadow the struggle against pre-eclampsia. Overall, the experience with the Simon Cumbers Media Fund was a good lesson: news waits for no one, so you’d better have a Plan B.