Author: Rozemarijn Wortelboer
In the midst of the worldwide battle against the outbreak of COVID19 – otherwise called the coronavirus – we are facing yet another public health emergency: With families in lockdown everywhere, domestic abuse and intimate partner violence (IPV) have increased dramatically (Fielding 2020).
However, with the threat of a dangerous virus right outside their homes, victims living in abusive situations find themselves stuck between two evils: Either risk catching the virus in a world that has closed its doors to others, or stay inside alongside their abusers. But how does one stay at home, if one’s home isn’t safe?
A Spike in Violence
Since 2020, observers have noted a stark increase of reports of abuse (Wagers 2020). In February – when the pandemic was at its height in Wuhan – there were allegedly three times as many reported cases of abuse as there were the year before (Fielding 2020). The “Counting Dead Women” project also reported that fourteen women and two children had been murdered in the first three weeks of lockdown in the UK (Roberts 2020). This increase in violence was reflected in the number of calls to support services, which increased by almost 50 percent (Roberts 2020).
Observers were not surprised to see that the stark, global increase of abuse reports corresponded to the timing of social distancing lockdowns (Wagers 2020). Domestic abuse and IPV are often centered around domination and psychological, physical and sometimes sexual control over the other person (Wagers 2020). During a pandemic, when familiar routines for work, education, sports, socializing and entertainment purposes fall away, the need to exert control grows (Wagers 2020). This need for control can take different shapes: Often, partners may begin micromanaging who their significant other talks to, what they do or when they eat, sleep or go out – all things that are more easily facilitated during a lockdown (Wagers 2020; BBC 2020).
The fear and stress generated by the pandemic and its financial and social consequences also play an important role in violent behavior at home (Fielding 2020). The media has shed light on numerous examples of abuse related to the pandemic: In the UK, an immunocompromised man was emotionally abused by his partner who actively deprived him of hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies (Fielding 2020). Another woman was threatened to be kicked out of her home if she coughed. Someone else was seriously injured by her husband, yet did not dare visit the hospital out of fear of catching the virus there (Fielding 2020).
Where is the Help?
Alarmingly, while the number of calls to helplines have increased, they are not rising as much as they should given the situation; some places are even receiving less calls than usual (Fielding 2020). It is known that victims of domestic abuse often seize opportunities to call for help when their abusers are away, for instance when they are at work. Experts fear that many victims are now unable to pick up the phone or seek support online as their abuser is constantly around them and may exploit the situation to exercise even more power over their partner (Fielding 2020).
When victims do manage to call, support is not always available as local service providers such as the police are stretched thin and have less capacity than normal. In fact, victims in need are often told that help cannot come to their house due to health concerns (Taub 2020).
Besides not being able to access primary support facilities, many victims of domestic abuse are choosing not to request shelter during the pandemic out of fear of being exposed to the virus (Taub 2020). Social support networks, as well as opportunities to escape the home situation even briefly – such as through school or work – have fallen away due to the social distancing measures (Fielding 2020). Finally, any files for divorce have been put on hold because of the pandemic (Taub 2020).
The Failure to Protect
Many believe that this situation was not entirely unexpected and that governments failed to properly consider the consequences their public health measures would have for abusive households (Taub 2020). The mental, physical and social consequences of abuse can last a lifetime and with the major lack of support now, societies will be dealing with its detrimental effects for at least another generation (Grierson 2020).
On the community level, changes are already being made, such as through the creation of safe spaces where victims can ask for help discreetly: “Mask 19” is a new codeword to report domestic abuse and is being used by victims at pharmacies in the Netherlands, France, Spain and Austria (Fielding 2020). Governmental and state action are also on the rise: In Italy and New Zealand hotel rooms are being transformed into shelters where victims of domestic abuse can find refuge for free (Taub 2020). In many countries, support systems are creating and spreading inside-safety plans made specifically for victims in quarantine with their abusers (Fielding 2020).
What is Next?
So what should our next steps look like?
Many are now saying that the implementation of appropriate safety measures to reduce abuse should be an integrated part of the fight against COVID19 (Grierson 2020). According to experts, we require a cross-governmental, full action plan to minimize the damage we have already inflicted. This plan should cover changes in the criminal justice system by reducing the time limit of an abuse charge, funding for housing support and safe accommodation for refuge, the facilitation of prevention and outreach, better access to information about existing support services in times of a pandemic, and funding for more ambulant medical support (Grierson 2020).
Hopefully, these measures will minimize the consequences of both the virus and the measures required to fight it which unfortunately have disproportionately affected already vulnerable populations.
BBC (2020). “Coronavirus: Lockdown ‘increasing’ domestic abuse risks.” BBC. At https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-52338706.
Fielding, S. (2020). “In quarantine with an abuser: surge in domestic violence reports linked to coronavirus.” The Guardian. At https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/apr/03/coronavirus-quarantine-abuse-domestic-violence.
Grierson, J. (2020). “Domestic abuse surge in coronavirus lockdown could have lasting impact, MPs say.” The Guardian. At https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/apr/27/domestic-abuse-surge-coronavirus-lockdown-lasting-impact-mps.
Roberts, A. (2020). “Women share horrific photos of injuries to raise awareness of domestic violence as 14 are killed since start of lockdown.” The Scottish Sun. At https://www.thescottishsun.co.uk/fabulous/5542996/coronavirus-domestic-violence-lockdown/?utm_medium=Social&utm_campaign=scottishsunfacebook#Echobox=1588161144.
Taub, A. “A New Covid-19 Crisis: Domestic Abuse Rises Worldwide.” The New York Times. At https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/06/world/coronavirus-domestic-violence.html.
Wagers, S. M. (2020). “Domestic violence growing in wake of coronavirus outbreak.” The Conversation. At https://theconversation.com/domestic-violence-growing-in-wake-of-coronavirus-outbreak-135598.