In an ironic twist, the very safety measures instituted to protect us against the virus have created a perfect environment for another public health crisis to unfold — silently.
Crisis situations, which cause extreme levels of uncertainty and stress, are expected to cause a spike in domestic violence cases.
COVID-19, however, is uniquely associated with measures that simultaneously force victims to stay with their abusers and deprive them of the chance to get help.
Revealing the hidden disaster of COVID-19
We tend to avoid talking about violence, especially when it’s taking place behind closed doors. We may hide behind the excuse of not wanting to meddle in someone’s private matter, or we may simply turn a blind eye because we can. With the COVID-19 pandemic taking its toll on everyone's mood, we speak about (other) unpleasant things even less, trying to focus on the positive.
That’s why when domestic violence statistics come up, like the fact that one in four women will be a victim of intimate partner violence, we may be shocked. But these numbers are growing in parallel with the pandemic, yet they're somehow completely lost in all the dreadful news about COVID-19 victims we’re bombarded with.
- In the first three months of 2020, almost 1000 women were killed in Mexico.
- The UK has reported femicide (gender-motivated killing of women) rates higher than they have been in the past 11 years, double the average for a 21-day period.
- In France, the Minister of Interior reported a 30% increase in cases of domestic violence across the country and a 36% increase in Paris alone since 17 March 2020.
- In Hubei province, China, domestic violence reports tripled.
- Reports also rose by 20% in Spain, 30% in Cyprus, and 40–50% in Brazil.
Like the coronavirus itself, coronavirus-fueled spikes in domestic violence cases are raging across the whole world.
Why is the COVID-19 pandemic causing a spike in domestic violence, including intimate partner violence?
Going through the pandemic is hard for everyone, but surviving it is infinitely harder for domestic abuse victims. Experts on the field warned against expected spikes in domestic violence rates very early on in the pandemic, but very few government took protective measures straight away. There are a few factors contributing to such a drastic increase in intimate partner violence (IPV). Let's take a look.
1. Forced proximity
To many women and children, lockdowns designed to keep populations safe from COVID-19 mean being locked in with their abuser. This means that victims may have been forced to endure more episodes of violent crime, but also that they couldn’t leave the house in moments of abuse, contributing to worse injuries.
2. Pandemic-related stress
The global uncertainty about what the future holds, fear of infection, losing jobs, children out of schools and stuck in the house... All these things are just a portion of what’s taking a toll on everyone’s mental health since the start of the year.
Financial uncertainty, in particular, has been shown to be an independent factor leading to the worsening of intimate partner violence. It raises abusers' stress levels, but also affects the victims. Because women held two-thirds of low-paying jobs, many of which were lost, some women became financially dependent on their partners since the pandemic.
Unsurprisingly, levels of alcohol consumption in some countries have also gone up since COVID-19 first invaded our lives. High stress in combination with alcohol (ab)use worsen violence even without forced proximity. What's specific for the pandemic we're experiencing right now is the stay-at-home measure and children being out of schools. The effect of these measures designed to flatten the curve is portrayed by places like Portland, where the Police Bureau reported a 22% increase in arrests related to domestic abuse in the weeks after the schools were closed.
3. Difficulties getting help
Deciding to reach out and ask for help is a hard step for many abused women, for a whole spectrum of reasons, from the fear that their partner will find out to not having faith that help will be provided, or not having the financial means to escape.
But the pandemic-related measures are making it next to impossible to get help in many places. Victims are socially isolated from their friends and family and any other support system they might have. Often, they don’t even have the privacy to make a phone call to a helpline.
This is why some jurisdictions, like New York, are actually seeing a reverse trend in calls for help and reports of domestic abuse. Additionally, fewer requests for domestic violence shelters were made.
Women are also less likely to reach out for medical help. According to one study in France, the main reasons are fear of infection or not wanting to bother doctors while they need to deal with COVID-19 patients.
COVID-19 and domestic violence: What’s the situation like in the United States?
The case of the US might seem controversial at first, and doctors play an important role in portraying the real picture. The situation differs from one jurisdiction to another, with Texas, Portland, and Alabama seeing an alarming trend in domestic abuse cases and calls.
However, in other localities, the situation appears less clear. The number of reported domestic violence cases have dropped in many places across the United States, notably by 54% in Philadelphia, and so did the number of medical visits. Unfortunately, this has nothing to do with the actual domestic abuse happening.
A group of radiologists reported that while the total number of patients who reported intimate partner violence was lower, the incidence was almost two times greater and the injuries were more severe. Compared to last year, reported cases showed more attempts of strangulation, stabbing, burning, or using a weapon. They believe that out of fear of coming to the ER, it took longer for women to report the violence and many of the waited until it reached an end-state (attempt of murder).
What can be done to combat intimate partner violence in the age of COVID-19?
The number one thing governments can do to tackle the burning problem of domestic violence, including intimate partner violence, is to make help accessible. This could be done by keeping the shelters open and re-opening the shelters closed when lockdown measures were implemented, as well as making more helplines that are available as smartphone apps available.
There are additional measures that could be helpful in combating domestic violence. For example, the Spanish government — which enforced one of the strictest lockdowns in the world — reassured women who were victims of domestic violence that they would not be fined if the reason for leaving their house was to report abuse.
However, this didn’t a mother from being killed in front of her children in the first month of lockdown. That’s why the first step of domestic violence prevention is on every one of us — and it’s to report violence whenever and wherever it’s happening. Remember that intimate partner violence has a tendency to escalate over time. If you see something, do something, whether it's reaching out to the victim and letting her or him know that you're ready to help, or calling the police.