While panic-buying of toilet paper dominated the news cycle, Australian women and girls say they were also struggling to access pads and tampons and avoided going to the doctors.
Australian women and girls say they struggled to access menstrual products and forwent medical treatment for reproductive issues during the height of the coronavirus crisis.
More than half of the 661 Australian women and girls surveyed by Plan International Australia said it was harder to find pads, tampons, period pain medication, and contraceptive pills in March and April due to panic-buying spurred by COVID-19.
The report released on Thursday, which is Menstrual Hygiene Day, detailed the varying menstruation-related issues across the Asia-Pacific, Africa, Latin America and Europe, including access to water and hygiene products.
Sydney university student Madhuraa Prakash, 21, experienced the shortage in Australia when she was tasked with buying tampons for her household of four women during the crisis.
“There was a moment just before seeing the shelves where it looked super empty … there was something, some brand I have never used before, but obviously you take what you can get,” Ms Prakash, who is also a youth activist with Plan International, told SBS News.
“Everyone was talking about the toilet paper shortage and that led to mechanisms where people could access toilet paper and things like that, but there was little to no coverage about the lack of menstrual hygiene products.”
Danielle McMullen, the president of the Australian Medical Association’s NSW branch, said she had also heard of a “reasonably widespread shortage of some sanitary products”, but was particularly concerned about the report's findings that women and girls had opted against visiting the doctor for sexual, menstruation, and reproductive health matters due to concerns over COVID-19.
“Family planning needs, contraceptives, menstrual management stuff is still really important at this time,” she said.
“We know that chronic painful conditions including things like endometriosis, can sometimes for some people be worse at times of stress. So definitely at the moment, if people have any healthcare questions, they should feel able to still go speak to their GP.”
According to the report, some women and girls felt guilty taking up the time of doctors for ongoing reproductive conditions or everyday issues, while others reported feeling afraid to visit the doctor, even if they meant going without medication.
“I want to go to the doctors to discuss the significant pain I’m having during my period. But I’m not sure if I’m allowed or if the doctor will think less of me for using their time rather than those with COVID-19 symptoms,” one respondent wrote.
Chief executive of Plan International Australia Susanne Legena said she hoped the report would “shine a light” on something that was very normal but is often difficult for girls and women to talk about, particularly during a public health crisis.
“It’s access to information, it's access to a doctor, it's access to contraceptives, it's access to a morning-after pill or any of the other things that you might require during this time, that is affected by a pandemic if people are avoiding going to a health service,” she said.
“The pandemic has [also] significantly affected the livelihoods and household incomes of a whole lot of people and that adds pressure, the affordability of menstrual hygiene products and the things that you need to purchase every month.”
An additional Plan International survey of 61 professionals working in water, sanitation and hygiene across 23 countries found many of them (75 per cent) believed the pandemic would give rise to increased health risks for women and girls internationally as resources, such as water, were diverted for other needs.
A similar amount (73 per cent) said the crisis-affected supply chains of menstrual products, leading to shortages, particularly in rural areas of vulnerable countries, while 58 per cent said they were concerned about an increase in prices where products were available.
In Australia, 20 per cent of respondents also reported noticing an increase in the cost of products.
One Australian respondent reported changing her tampon less frequently than usual due to the spike in cost. Another said she believed “prices had almost doubled” and stores were often out of the more affordable brands.
Plan International Australia said it had not independently verified these claims.
Consumer watchdog, Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), told SBS News it was unable to provide details of complaints and added it held “no direct enforcement power to deal with excessive pricing”.
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