COVID-19 and SRH/MNH: A Curated Online Collection for Medical Anthropology Quarterly

The novel coronavirus is profoundly impacting population health and welfare across the globe, forcing patients, medical providers, and healthcare systems to find ways to rapidly adjust to COVID-19’s complex risks and constraints. The crisis has led to especially severe effects and outcomes for vulnerable persons and healthcare systems.

Women’s sexual and reproductive (SRH) and maternal and newborn (MNH) health, already badly impacted by inattention and disinvestment in many parts of the world, are now even more dangerously deprioritzed and neglected due to the effects of social distancing, lockdowns, and overloaded health systems. Equally worrying is the growing evidence that women in better-resourced settings such as the United States are now also facing similar gaps in care, and are more likely to experience the pandemic-linked health hazards and harms that result.

With many of COVID-19’s short and long-term effects for SRH/MNH still poorly understood, medical anthropologists are uniquely positioned to help fill in the gaps and answer emerging questions about the pandemic’s impacts on women’s health and healthcare services and systems. Not least, our work holds the power to raise necessary attention concerning social, political, and organizational efforts to protect women and newborns from the worst of the pandemic, especially those made most vulnerable by the crisis.

In this spirit, our online special collection gathers together the work of medical anthropologists whose research, advocacy and activism concern COVID-19’s impacts on SRH/MNH.By adopting critical and action-oriented approaches, the contributors provide compelling insights into the contextual forces and dynamics at stake in health system and community-level responses to the pandemic as they draw women and their newborns closer to care, further estrange them from the services they need (see Garcia et al, Grotti and Quagliariello; Upton), or, under the pretext of protocol adherence and risk-reduction, separate babies from their mothers (see Bastian and Sanchez). More than this, they show how the pandemic’s challenges are variably experienced, with different cultural, political and geographic sites giving rise not only to unique forms of need and vulnerability but also to opportunity and ingenuity.

In assessing health system and policy-level efforts to prevent the adverse outcomes that can follow from, for instance, inaccessible or overwhelmed healthcare services (see Yuill, McCourt and Rocca-Ihenacho), the displacement of women and their key supports from clinical settings (see Castañeda and Searcy), or reductions in the number and types of medical services and treatments (see Mishtal et al), our contributors reveal the limits of large-scale interventions and policies, and they confirm the need for context-responsive solutions to the challenges posed by COVID-19 for SRH/MNH, efforts for which medical anthropology is especially well-suited.

Just as importantly, the contributors illuminate how the pandemic yields stress fractures and reveals pre-existing fault lines not only in healthcare systems but also in society more generally. What become clear in many of these pieces are the overlapping and intersecting inequities brought once again to the foreground by this pandemic. We see that women of color, those with lower socioeconomic status, and those in under-resourced settings face some of the most challenging circumstances every day, but especially in these times. Their already reduced access to healthcare services is amplified and reinforced by limited access to privilege that would allow them to access alternative care or forms of support.

By clarifying the ‘lessons learned’ by health systems and medical providers, and SRH/MNH advocates and stakeholders during the pandemic, the contributors pinpoint the specific kinds of policy- and programme-relevant evidence, skills, and strategies needed to successfully navigate the difficult weeks and months to come. In so doing, their work permits information sharing and awareness raising while cultivating the grounds for global action.

Special Collection Organizers:

Emma Varley, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Brandon University, Canada, and an Adjunct of the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Saskatchewan, and Adjunct and Senior Advisor for Qualitative Research on Maternal and Newborn Health at the University of Manitoba’s Centre for Global Public Health. Recent publications explore the contributions of health system mismanagement and medical malpractice to maternal injury and death, the impacts of sectarian violence, natural disaster, and acute forms of social exclusion on obstetric services, and the use of medicine as a tactic of war. Email:

Adrienne E. Strong, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Florida, USA and an affiliate faculty member of the Center for African Studies and the Center for Gender, Sexualities, and Women’s Studies Research. Dr. Strong is the author of the 2020 open access book Documenting Death: Maternal Mortality and the Ethics of Care in Tanzania from University of California Press. Email: