JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – After landing in Johannesburg following a 19-hour flight from New York, I hop in a taxi heading towards the city center. As I look out the window, the nation’s largest city seems calm. The streets are clean, children are playing in the parks, and family homes and business complexes dot the landscape. The grass is parched a golden hue as winter rolls in. People stroll down the streets, shielding themselves from the cool weather with winter caps and sweaters.
But the quiet calm conceals a troubling concern in this nation of over 52 million people. South Africa is failing its mothers and newborns. Across the country, 4,300 women die each year as a result of complications that arise during pregnancy and childbirth. For babies, it’s even worse. Some 20,000 are born stillborn and another 23,000 babies die within their first month, according to UNICEF. Yet another 75,000 children don’t make it to their fifth birthday. While the South African government has made efforts to improve maternal and child health outcomes in the nation, still over 60 percent of deaths of children under 5 years old are avoidable, due to failures of the health system, such as poor assessment and management of care in hospitals.