Strict COVID-19 lockdown birthing rules separating partners left new mum feeling like 'an animal'

A Wellington mum who gave birth during the alert level 4 lockdown has held back tears telling MPs the lack of support she received left her feeling like "an animal". 

Rebecca Burgess, 39, was 38 weeks pregnant when alert level 4 began and her daughter Trinity was born a week-and-a-half later. While Burgess is delighted to have her new baby, the birthing experience left her feeling angry towards the Government. 

"There was no real action and no real leadership. A consistent national direction was non-existent and information was hard to get. Different DHBs [District Health Boards] had different rules," she told the Epidemic Response Committee. 

Burgess planned to have a natural birth at home, but her first midwife said she would only support her giving birth at a hospital unit, and that meant her partner Cameron would not be allowed to stay with her because of the lockdown rules. 

Burgess was then forced to find another midwife, but that one fell through too, because she refused to have an induction. She was then forced to go to Wellington Hospital where she knew her partner would not be allowed in the room to support her. 

"I felt disempowered like my body was not my own and I felt like I had no choice in the way I birthed," Burgess said. "I felt like an animal."

She said shortly after Trinity was born, her partner was told to leave, which she said felt "inhumane". 

"Cameron was denied that precious time to bond as a father. When I discharged myself from hospital, I could see the pain in his face."

Burgess said at the most vulnerable time of her life, "bleeding and sobbing", she was wheeled into the post-natal ward and there "received substandard care". 

"I was criticised for not having enough nappies and for not having enough new-born clothing... I would have thought that at a time of Civil Defence emergency, women in hospital would be provided with essentials if they weren't able to bring them.

"I asked for help from the midwife for feeding, and she told me there would be no midwife to help me at home and I needed to do it myself.

"I had expected to receive help with breastfeeding. I hadn't been able to attend any breastfeeding classes before the virus hit. Hospital staff did not seem to have the time."

She also said no one in the birthing unit wore personal protective equipment (PPE). 

Health Director-General Dr Ashley Bloomfield told the committee the Government simply wanted to "reduce the risk for everybody". 

He said the Ministry of Health did not want to discriminate against any particular group and that the Government was being "mindful" of people requiring support, noting how an exemption could be applied for in Burgess' situation. 

"At the time when we were in alert level 4, we were in this position where we had seen the impact this virus had on health services overseas and we were keen to avoid that impact."

Burgess said she did not have family support in Wellington and was largely left alone to handle the new baby, with little sleep, until she was able to reunite with her partner. 

"I don't know how many times I cried in the hospital... The lack of care in post-natal made me feel like I had no worth as a mother."

She said the experience had made her wonder if New Zealand overreacted to the virus. 

"We were fortunate here to be able to see how the virus behaved on the other side of the world. The paradox was this sense of mass hysteria this all created. I saw this all play out online.

"I saw how women in America were being prevented from a support person in birth. I never thought it could happen here...Ministry of Health guidance was unclear and fragmented."

National MP Louise Upston held back tears responding to Burgess, telling her: "I think you're amazing... I know right now it's challenging but I know you can put this behind you."

Burgess acknowledged there will be mums who may have a different view, but she said she wants to "make a difference". 

Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson said: "You have made a difference by sharing this story."