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unwanted pregnancies in virus-hit S.Africa

South African student Jessica* had already missed two periods when she shyly slipped into a clinic to seek an abortion in early July, as the coronavirus outbreak was reaching its peak.

Nurses scurrying to accomodate a long line of patients with varying ailments told the 19-year-old that the clinic was “fully booked” and advised her to try at a hospital.

Two months later, with the help of a local rights group lobbying hospitals to assist, Jessica was finally booked in for a procedure that required surgery — rather than pills — due to the delay.

And it was almost too late. Another dozen days would have taken Jessica past 20 weeks, the legal limit to terminate a pregnancy in South Africa.  

“It was draining. It was the worst thing I have experienced,” she told AFP via telephone two weeks after the operation. 

The pandemic has made access to legal abortion services and contraception more difficult in South Africa, according to charities and health workers.

They believe that movement restrictions, overstretched hospitals and disrupted drug supplies led to unwanted pregnancies that many women failed to discontinue.

“Facilities were focused on fighting the pandemic,” said Whitney Chinogwenya, spokeswoman for international charity Marie Stopes in South Africa.

“So we started seeing more people coming in and saying: I went to such and such hospital and they couldn’t assist me.”

Hospitals and clinics scaled back all but essential services when a nationwide anti-coronavirus lockdown was imposed in March.

The move freed up hands and space in facilities about to confront Africa’s worst coronavirus outbreak.

But access to family planning suffered greatly as a result, particularly in already poorly-serviced rural areas.

“During Covid our whole service just came to a halt,” said a hospital doctor in the southeastern small town of Peddie.

– Fear and less privacy – 

Women seeking an abortion in Peddie were referred to far away cities.

The doctor, who did not wish to be named, suspected that most women were unable to travel such distances without raising questions — particularly during lockdown.

“It takes a lot for them to even come here and ask for an abortion,” he said, noting the stigma attached to the procedure.

“So to get here and be told that we are not providing these services must be a final nail in the coffin.”

In KwaZulu-Natal province, many women stopped visiting clinics to renew their contraceptive injections — the most widely-used form of free birth control in South Africa.

A nurse overseeing reproductive health services in the area suspected they held back “from fear of catching coronavirus” and because of limited privacy.

“Women leaving their homes were likely to be questioned,” she said, pointing to widespread misconceptions about contraception.

By the end of May, the nurse, also speaking anonymously, noticed a sudden surge in the number of women seeking to end pregnancies.

By then, the few facilities providing abortions were swamped by coronavirus and many were short on drugs.

Abortion pill suppliers said imports were