COVID-19 has made the overlooked Black maternal health crisis even more vital to address
Photo by Andre Adjahoe on Unsplash

"New normal." That's the phrase ushered in by the novel coronavirus and the devastating scourge of death from COVID-19. "New normal" is the only way we as a collective can explain our current way of life: Social distancing, face mask wearing, working and teaching from home, constantly conferencing over Zoom and scheduling telehealth appointments instead of physically seeing a doctor unless absolutely necessary.

However, not all characteristics of "normal" life are easily converted to digital expression. Specifically, giving birth.

Right now as the United States grapples with more than 100,000 COVID-19 deaths, a resurgence of the virus in a dozen states, and massive demonstrations over the most recent murders of unarmed Black men and women, there is one crisis that is not getting the same attention, a crisis that has been allowed to linger and fester in this country for decades: The glaring disparity in the maternal death rate and infant mortality rate for Black mothers and their newborns.


Pre-pandemic numbers show that Black women are three to four times more likely to die during childbirth than are white women, and Black infants are twice as likely to die at birth or immediately after than are white infants.

"The thought of losing a child that didn't even get a chance to live life is truly terrifying," says Rebecca Merriweather, who recently gave birth to a baby girl.

Merriweather wasn't aware of the statistics surrounding Black maternal health and infant mortality when she learned she was pregnant, but already had concerns of her own: "Preeclampsia and possible complications during labor and how to avoid them." Preeclampsia is a pregnancy complication characterized by high blood pressure and is 60% more common in Black women compared to white women.

"Oftentimes women take very good care of themselves," said Certified Nurse Midwife Marsha E. Jackson CNM, MSN, FACNM. "They're often knowledgeable, they're eating right, they're doing all the right things, and they start running into problems with their blood pressure creeping up and things like that and it stems back to our whole healthcare system and all of the hurts we as Black people have experienced for centuries."

To help stave off some of those complications, Dr. Chandra Adams, M.D. has had to find new ways to keep up with her patients health while also providing them the best care.

"We're doing telehealth visits, which works pretty well, but we had to work out getting blood pressure cuffs, encouraging people to buy them, that way if they aren't coming to the office we can keep up with their vital signs," Dr. Adams said.

In the midst of the pandemic some Black women have been taking their birth experience into their own hands, looking for alternatives to decrease their risks and exposure to the coronavirus and any complications that could impose on their pregnancy, labor, and delivery. Those alternatives include midwifery care.

"More Black women go to the hospital to have their babies, but I think with this pandemic we have had an increase in women seeking our services," Jackson said. Jackson is the owner, co-founder, and director of BirthCare & Women's Health, Ltd. based in Alexandria, Virginia, a midwifery practice that caters to clients who have births in their homes or in the BirthCare birth center.

Dr. Adams, The Owner of Full Circle Jax in Jacksonville, Florida runs a private practice with doctors and midwives on staff. While she believes in the midwifery and birth center model, she cautions that it is not for everyone.

"I'm not opposed to out of hospital birth, but I don't think any decisions about birth should be made out of fear . . . You shouldn't run from a hospital because of a perceived danger without understanding what the risks are of delivering outside of the hospital."

Tecoya Harris, currently pregnant with her first child, admits to having mixed feelings about giving birth.

"I feel anxious about delivery due to the fact that I can't anticipate how it will feel," Harris said. "At the same time, my faith is high so I have to trust that God has brought me to this moment because I am ready. Having resources, a strong partner, and a doula also helps bring down some of those anxieties."

Dr. Adams strongly advocates for her moms to have a doula, and also encourages pregnant women to use their voice to advocate for themselves.

"I've been hearing women saying [about health problems] 'I've never brought it up again because I was afraid of what a doctor would say to me,' and so they just stopped talking about their problem. Don't stop talking about your problem! Go find somebody who's going to listen to you, and treat you like someone who respects you, and will find out what's wrong. That's our job. That's literally our job!"

While that may be the job, history shows the healthcare industry has a negative track record when it comes to listening and believing Black women when they say something is wrong.

"The system has done a terrible job of listening to Black women," Dr. Adams said.

Tennis superstar Serena Williams and Olympic-gold medal winner Allyson Felix have both been vocal about their birth experiences, the complications they faced, and how they had to fight to be heard to get well. Yet their stories, though cautionary, still end with a positive outcome. The same cannot be said for Charles Johnson IV who lost his wife Kira in 2015 when she bled to death after the birth of their second child.

"They [were] under the care of a physician, and basically they just let her die," Jackson said, recounting hearing Charles Johnson IV tell his family's story during the 2020 virtual conference of the American College of Nurse Midwives.

Jackson and Dr. Adams believe some of the blame for the Black maternal health crisis lies with ever expanding physician practices.

"One of the biggest problems was when hospitals started to employ physicians," Dr. Adams said. "Physicians, before, when we started we'd hang our shingle and open solo practices. You had the personal care because in the similar fashion of the mom-and-pop shop you were responsible for the level of customer service, and that is how you kept your 'customers' coming back."

Now, many physicians are employed by hospitals or large doctor groups who are more focused on productivity. Dr. Adams said that has led to a decrease in time doctors have with their patients, which can lead to a decrease in care. Because of this, Dr. Adams and Marsha Jackson both say Black women need to educate themselves in every way.

"You have to do research in the beginning. You want to find out what kind of options are available," Jackson said.

"But you're not going to go to medical school," Dr. Adams added. "There's a certain amount that you can't just get from Googling or reading on your own . . . but if you gather enough information about people you'll find what you're looking for."

This advice applied before the pandemic hit. Now, the country's response to COVID-19 has made it all the more important for pregnant Black women to do their research, assess their risks, and have the hard conversations with their doctors.

On her birth experience, Merriweather said, "The labor and delivery ward where I had my child was very meticulous in keeping the section of the hospital cut off from the rest to protect the lives of the mother and baby from the virus. Each doctor and nurse was only allowed to work in that division of the hospital and had to be tested before being allowed in while wearing masks."

For Harris, hearing of positive birth experiences from friends and loved ones has helped to keep her spirits up, even in the face of the pandemic and Black maternal health crises.

"Although it is scary, seeing that other women have had healthy babies and deliveries give me hope," Harris said. "Our bodies were made to do this and we are already amazing moms with every decision we make during pregnancy."

Pandemic or no pandemic, Dr. Adams—who has been focused on the Black maternal health crisis for over a decade—says while this discussion isn't new, people are finally being heard and there is responsibility for doctors and Black women.

"What is unfortunate in the healthcare system is that Black women are not listened to, we are not treated with respect, and we are not believed when we present valid complaints," she said. "[But] what is actually physically killing us is hypertension and hemorrhage. We are not dying from people not being nice to us. We are disenfranchised and we're not receiving the appropriate amount of preventative care, and sometimes responsive care, because of that."

In early March, U.S. Representatives Lauren Underwood, Alma S. Adams, and Senator Kamala Harris introduced the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act of 2020. The legislation is a package of nine individual bills aimed at "comprehensively addressing every dimension of the Black maternal health crisis." However, the package has received little exposure due to COVID. Once again, Black women, mothers, and their children are left to fend for themselves at a time when Black people are twice as likely to die from COVID than their white peers.

With the future passability of the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act unknown, and the expected resurgence of COVID-19 in the fall (or until there is a vaccine) the onus remains on Black women to educate and advocate for themselves and their unborn children, and perhaps to seek a collaborative model of care where available.

"Cooperative care between midwives and physicians is essential," Dr. Adams said. "You have to have a midlevel to understand what is normal. [Someone] who has been trained enough to see enough to know what is abnormal and to appropriately refer to someone to handle when something is abnormal."

Leah Menzies/TikTok

Leah Menzies had no idea her deceased mother was her boyfriend's kindergarten teacher.

When you start dating the love of your life, you want to share it with the people closest to you. Sadly, 18-year-old Leah Menzies couldn't do that. Her mother died when she was 7, so she would never have the chance to meet the young woman's boyfriend, Thomas McLeodd. But by a twist of fate, it turns out Thomas had already met Leah's mom when he was just 3 years old. Leah's mom was Thomas' kindergarten teacher.

The couple, who have been dating for seven months, made this realization during a visit to McCleodd's house. When Menzies went to meet his family for the first time, his mom (in true mom fashion) insisted on showing her a picture of him making a goofy face. When they brought out the picture, McLeodd recognized the face of his teacher as that of his girlfriend's mother.

Menzies posted about the realization moment on TikTok. "Me thinking my mum (who died when I was 7) will never meet my future boyfriend," she wrote on the video. The video shows her and McLeodd together, then flashes to the kindergarten class picture.

“He opens this album and then suddenly, he’s like, ‘Oh my God. Oh my God — over and over again,” Menzies told TODAY. “I couldn’t figure out why he was being so dramatic.”

Obviously, Menzies is taking great comfort in knowing that even though her mother is no longer here, they can still maintain a connection. I know how important it was for me to have my mom accept my partner, and there would definitely be something missing if she wasn't here to share in my joy. It's also really incredible to know that Menzies' mother had a hand in making McLeodd the person he is today, even if it was only a small part.

@speccylee

Found out through this photo in his photo album. A moment straight out of a movie 🥲

♬ iris - 🫶

“It’s incredible that that she knew him," Menzies said. "What gets me is that she was standing with my future boyfriend and she had no idea.”

Since he was only 3, McLeodd has no actual memory of Menzies' mother. But his own mother remembers her as “kind and really gentle.”

The TikTok has understandably gone viral and the comments are so sweet and positive.

"No the chills I got omggg."

"This is the cutest thing I have watched."

"It’s as if she remembered some significance about him and sent him to you. Love fate 😍✨"

In the caption of the video, she said that discovering the connection between her boyfriend and her mom was "straight out of a movie." And if you're into romantic comedies, you're definitely nodding along right now.

Menzies and McLeodd made a follow-up TikTok to address everyone's positive response to their initial video and it's just as sweet. The young couple sits together and addresses some of the questions they noticed pop up. People were confused that they kept saying McLeodd was in kindergarten but only 3 years old when he was in Menzies' mother's class. The couple is Australian and Menzies explained that it's the equivalent of American preschool.

They also clarified that although they went to high school together and kind of knew of the other's existence, they didn't really get to know each other until they started dating seven months ago. So no, they truly had no idea that her mother was his teacher. Menzies revealed that she "didn't actually know that my mum taught at kindergarten."

"I just knew she was a teacher," she explained.

She made him act out his reaction to seeing the photo, saying he was "speechless," and when she looked at the photo she started crying. McLeodd recognized her mother because of the pictures Menzies keeps in her room. Cue the "awws," because this is so cute, I'm kvelling.

Photo by Heather Mount on Unsplash

Actions speak far louder than words.

It never fails. After a tragic mass shooting, social media is filled with posts offering thoughts and prayers. Politicians give long-winded speeches on the chamber floor or at press conferences asking Americans to do the thing they’ve been repeatedly trained to do after tragedy: offer heartfelt thoughts and prayers. When no real solution or plan of action is put forth to stop these senseless incidents from occurring so frequently in a country that considers itself a world leader, one has to wonder when we will be honest with ourselves about that very intangible automatic phrase.

Comedian Anthony Jeselnik brilliantly summed up what "thoughts and prayers" truly mean. In a 1.5-minute clip, Jeselnik talks about victims' priorities being that of survival and not wondering if they’re trending at that moment. The crowd laughs as he mimics the actions of well-meaning social media users offering thoughts and prayers after another mass shooting. He goes on to explain how the act of performatively offering thoughts and prayers to victims and their families really pulls the focus onto the author of the social media post and away from the event. In the short clip he expertly expresses how being performative on social media doesn’t typically equate to action that will help victims or enact long-term change.

Of course, this isn’t to say that thoughts and prayers aren’t welcomed or shouldn’t be shared. According to Rabbi Jack Moline "prayer without action is just noise." In a world where mass shootings are so common that a video clip from 2015 is still relevant, it's clear that more than thoughts and prayers are needed. It's important to examine what you’re doing outside of offering thoughts and prayers on social media. In another several years, hopefully this video clip won’t be as relevant, but at this rate it’s hard to see it any differently.

Moricz was banned from speaking up about LGBTQ topics. He found a brilliant workaround.

Senior class president Zander Moricz was given a fair warning: If he used his graduation speech to criticize the “Don’t Say Gay” law, then his microphone would be shut off immediately.

Moricz had been receiving a lot of attention for his LGBTQ activism prior to the ceremony. Moricz, an openly gay student at Pine View School for the Gifted in Florida, also organized student walkouts in protest and is the youngest public plaintiff in the state suing over the law formally known as the Parental Rights in Education law, which prohibits the discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity in grades K-3.

Though well beyond third grade, Moricz nevertheless was also banned from speaking up about the law, gender or sexuality. The 18-year-old tweeted, “I am the first openly-gay Class President in my school’s history–this censorship seems to show that they want me to be the last.”

However, during his speech, Moricz still delivered a powerful message about identity. Even if he did have to use a clever metaphor to do it.

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