Much has been said of the anecdotal evidence on domestic abuse during the current coronavirus pandemic, with reports from victims in a vast array of countries – including China, France, Australia, India, Ireland, Netherlands, New Zealand, Tunisia, Turkey, UK – highlighting the difficulties of long-term isolation with abusive partners. The reports and available data are worrying, particularly in light of the fact that most of these countries will keep the social distancing and stay-at-home orders in place for several more long and tense weeks.
But the most worrisome stories are those that we are not hearing at all, those lost in the black hole of domestic violence data (whilst police and domestic violence hotlines in Italy and New York have reported a steep decrease in calls, organisations providing shelter to victims of abuse have reported an increase).
Looking ahead to the gradual loosening of restrictions, law enforcement officials and advocates must begin to prepare for the deluge of complaints, reports and restraining orders that will inevitably come their way. Policy makers, on the other hand, must understand the underlying mechanisms of domestic violence so as to put in place actionable, gender-informed pandemic program responses in preparation for the “second wave” of coronavirus.
Why home may not always be the safest place
So what are the underlying mechanisms of increased domestic abuse during the pandemic? Seminal studies dating back decades have broken down the links between increases in domestic violence and events such as natural disasters, conflict, economic downturns… and even football games.
The coronavirus pandemic case study is both a health emergency and an economic crisis marked by unprecedented mass unemployment. The sharp economic downturn increases abusive behaviour directly for those that have experienced job loss, since the material hardship and generalised feelings of powerlessness often encourages abusers to adopt problematic coping behaviours and to exert more control on their intimate relationships. Given that domestic violence is rooted in an uneven power dynamic, in this context intimate partner relationships suffer and abuses (including physical, sexual and psychological violence) become rampant. Interestingly, even those who anticipate job loss or who experience anxiety related to the deteriorating macroeconomic conditions, regardless of race, education and marital status, may also fall victim to the same relational dynamics.
The health emergency angle of the pandemic has imposed and actively encouraged physical isolation, which often exacerbates the victims’ situation by making it easier for the abuser to limit their movements, interpersonal contacts, and access to financial resources. In quarantine, victims are only able to access their support networks through their phone and computer, which are often checked by their abusers. It is also more difficult for them to find moments of privacy during which to seek help; since they may no longer be allowed to go to work, to the gym, or to take their children to school, many are taking advantage of short windows of opportunity when their partner is taking a shower or walking the dog.
At the same time, abusers are leveraging the virus as a method of control, often by spreading misinformation and sowing exaggerated fears into their victims’ mind. After a violent incident, the victim may be forced to evaluate their fear of the virus against the fear of the abuser, knowing that hospitals, police stations and social services for the protection of battered women may be overrun or infected.
Leveraging Creativity & Digital
With these limitations in mind, advocacy groups and governments around the world have had to take more creative approaches to make sure that victims can be supported in accessible ways. Drawing from a Spanish initiative, the French government has put in place the code word “mask 19” in pharmacies, allowing victims to discreetly communicate their issue to the authorities. Similarly, Long Island caseworkers have pretended to be pharmacists checking up on prescriptions when spouses answered victims’ phones. Another idea being discussed by the Women’s Rights Commissioner of New Zealand is that of providing letters from employers that serve as pretences for victims to leave the house for a short period of time, thus allowing them to devise an actionable plan.
The digital sphere is also playing an increasingly important role in response to domestic violence. Google searches for domestic violence help have skyrocketed, as have the number of Facebook messages and emails to dedicated organisations. India’s National Commission for Women has supplemented these efforts with a dedicated WhatsApp number, which is currently receiving one in six of the domestic abuse complaints during the national lockdown. In a similar vein, Italy’s Interior Ministry has launched “YouPol”, an app designed to alert the authorities of domestic abuse. In all of these cases, those attempting to communicate should remember to erase chat histories, delete the app, silence their phones and regularly change their passwords. Abusers are not likely to respond well if they find out that their partners are seeking help.
It seems clear that relationships that were already fraught may become violent during the pandemic, but it should also be noted that even in normal circumstances, analyses by the WHO have found that 30% of all women who have been in a relationship have experienced violence at the hands of their intimate partner. The human cost of the short- and long-term violence is incalculable of course, but the economic one has been estimated at a staggering US$ 1.5 trillion – which is likely to increase in the aftermath of the pandemic.
With experts expressing concerns about a resurgence of infections in the autumn months (the so-called “second wave”), it is still difficult to ascertain the full range of socio-economic impacts from COVID-19. It is now more pressing than ever to craft gender-informed emergency programs, and for everyone to stay vigilant and always keep reporting signs of domestic violence