Mothers in Malta are still being separated from their newborns if they cannot produce a negative COVID-19 swab test, even though global health experts advise otherwise.
Several women who gave birth during the COVID-19 pandemic or are scheduled to do so in the coming months reached out to Lovin Malta amid growing fears that their newborn children could be snatched away from them soon after birth.
Separation between mother and child was recommended by the World Health Organisation when the pandemic first erupted at the start of the year.
Amid growing uncertainty over the virus, Maltese authorities issued protocols demanding that mothers must enter hospital with a negative test or face separation from their baby immediately after birth. The rules remain in place today.
Claire* gave birth last April. She was already dealing with the stress of knowing she would have to go through it alone without the presence of a partner when she was informed that she might have her baby taken away.
“Mid-way through the month, a friend told me that if you don’t have a swab test, they will take the baby away…I couldn’t talk with anyone with all the thoughts going through my mind. The worry of giving birth, the fact that I would have to go through it without my partner and then that,” she said.
Then, Claire’s water broke just before she set an appointment date for the swab test. She was swabbed at around 1am while the baby was born 3am and immediately taken away from her.
“She was born, I heard the cry, and that was it. I had even self-isolated from mid-March, so there was little chance I was positive. The doctor took a short video of the baby and sent it through social media for me to see. But still, it’s not the same,” Claire said.
Claire eventually got hold of her baby when she got the test results the next day.
“I’m thankful that she was safe and sound in my hands, but it was a once in a lifetime experience ruined forever,” she said.
Six months later and new studies have led to the WHO to advise against separating mothers and their babies. They now say that the benefits of breastfeeding “substantially outweigh” the risk of transmission to newborns, even when mothers are suspected to have coronavirus or test positive.
A study in the UK that surveilled more than 1,000 mothers with coronavirus found that only 1 to 2% of their babies contract the virus. Those who tested positive did not suffer from severe symptoms. Scientists are even collecting the breastmilk of coronavirus-positive mothers to look for potential treatments.
The separation protocol remains in place in Malta. One woman who is 40-weeks pregnant told the newsroom that she is currently in mandatory quarantine and unable to get a test in time for her due date. Her baby will now be forcibly taken away from her upon birth. She will need to isolate before her newborn is returned to her.
Maltese authorities have been reluctant to change regulations with well-informed sources telling Lovin Malta that even the slightest possibility of having the virus should merit their separation. They stressed that mothers with a negative test could stay with their newborn.
Mater Dei Hospital has also been dealing with its own issues in containing the virus. Several patients seemingly contracted the virus while visiting the hospital, some of whom even the died.
With the government seemingly reluctant to change the law, family lawyer Robert Thake has suggested that the separation could be illegal without the parents’ consent.
“There is no law that I am aware of, whether primary or subsidiary, which allows the state to take a child from a parent or over-ride that parent’s parental authority other than in the case of a care order,” he said.
From a legal angle, parents are endowed with what is referred to as parental authority or parental responsibility. This authority can end in three broad scenarios, apart from in the case of care orders and adoptions. Firstly, when it is forfeited, secondly when it ceases naturally, and thirdly as a result of court discretion.
If the case were to go to the court, it would not be a straightforward legal issue. Courts are endowed with incredible discretion which allows them to override the provisions of the Civil Code to do what is in the child’s best interests.
Lovin Malta has reached out to the Health Ministry to ascertain the legal basis for the decision. In the past, the Health Ministry has defended its decision to separate mothers from their newborns, arguing it was the best measure for the local context.
Do you agree with the Health Ministry’s decision?