Pregnant Italians on virus-free island told to deliver elsewhere

Protests grow after maternity ward on Pantelleria, which is coronavirus-free, was closed.

italian women forced to give birth near covid patients
Pantelleria resident Annalucia Cardillo is eight months pregnant and leading calls against women being made to deliver on another island at a hospital where coronavirus patients are being treated [Courtesy: Annalucia Cardillo]

Rome, Italy – On Sicily’s southernmost island of Pantelleria, 33-year-old Annalucia Cardillo was looking forward to the birth of her first child.

But in the past few weeks, for Cardillo and the seven other women on the island due to give birth in May, anticipation has turned to fear. 

On March 2, the maternity ward of Pantelleria’s Nagar hospital was abruptly shut down and its pregnant residents ordered to travel the more than 75 miles (120km) to Trapani on the main island of Sicily, one month before their due date.

“We’re obviously very angry and frustrated,” said Cardillo, the spokeswoman of Pantelleria Vuole Nascere (Pantelleria Wants to Give Birth), a group petitioning to have the ward reopened.

“You’re thrown into in a completely unfamiliar environment where you don’t know any of the doctors, and because of the coronavirus emergency, you can’t even bring someone into the room with you during labour. It’s really a serious [violation] to do this to someone in such a vulnerable moment.” 

Pantelleria, home to about 8,000 people, is currently coronavirus-free, and the Trapani hospitals where the women are being sent treat COVID-19 patients.

“Aside from the risk to themselves, they risk bringing the virus back here, which is a very serious concern,” Pantelleria Mayor Vincenzo Campo told Al Jazeera.

The maternity ward’s closure is unrelated to the coronavirus emergency.

It results instead from a 2012 law which allows authorities to close hospital maternity wards which see fewer than 500 births a year.

Authorities can at their discretion relax the law for a set time period, and have done so in the past for Pantelleria.

But in December 2019, the ward’s permit lapsed, and, for reasons that are contested, the documentation needed to continue operations was not produced. 

Cardillo has decided to give birth at home on the island.

But most of her contemporaries are not prepared to accept the increased risks a home birth carries.

italian women forced to give birth near covid patients
Annalucia Cardillo’s pregnant belly with the words Per Il Mio Parto, Io Non Parto (For My Labour, I’m Not Leaving) painted on [Courtesy: Annalucia Cardillo]

“I had hoped until the last moment that this wouldn’t happen, but here I am on the boat that will take me away from my island to deliver my son… Our cries have gone unheard,” said Pantelleria resident Laura in a video posted to Facebook on Friday. 

In the lead-up to Easter, Mayor Campo, Pantelleria’s vice mayor and city council president went on a week-long hunger strike to try to provoke a response from authorities. 

They say they are protesting the closure of the maternity ward, and generalised budget cuts which meant the island cannot offer even basic treatment to its 50 immunosuppressed cancer patients who are also required to make frequent visits to Trapani. 

In a video call last week with Campo and members of Pantelleria’s the Future Mothers Committee, representatives of the Ministry of Health said they would approve the reopening of the ward if the Region of Sicily’s Department of Health guarantees it can meet certain requirements contained in the law, which include increased staff and equipment. 

“Now we’re just waiting to hear back from the region,” says Campo. “If they don’t agree to reopen the ward, we’re prepared to go back on hunger strike.” 

The region’s Department of Health did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment. 

“We feel that we have been utterly abandoned to ourselves, in the absence of any willingness by the responsible institutions to step up and protect our rights,” says Cardillo.

“All we can do is continue to make our voices heard. It’s our anger that motivates us to keep going.”

Source: Al Jazeera