With a billion people worldwide in lockdown, it’s worth asking what the cost is — going beyond the impending economic disaster. In all this uncertainty, one thing is clear: it will be worst for the most vulnerable. The losers of this battle against Corona are those with precarious jobs, those with pre-existing health conditions, and those who are locked down with their abusive partners.
Being a survivor myself, I wondered how people who are going through abusive relationships right now would cope with the lockdown. I imagined that they would have no room to breathe as there would be nowhere to go. So I went searching for answers.
The first indication that I was not alone with my questions: According to the BBC, the hashtag #AntiDomesticViolenceDuringEpidemic #疫期反家暴# has been going big on China’s social media platform Sina Weibo.
Quantitative and comprehensive data on domestic violence during quarantines isn’t easy to find. Not only does the nature of the subject make this complicated; but we’re still in the early days of the biggest lockdown in human history.
As a data scientist, I shall be looking into this again once more quantitative information is available. A few points, however, are already clear:
- Domestic abuse, whether it’s reported to the police or goes unreported, is expected to rise massively during the lockdown.
- Care and shelters for victims will be less available due to Corona-related concerns.
- Legal and economical aid for victims will be less available due to decreases in funding, other priorities and the economic decline.
Signs of this are already evident, as the number of domestic violence cases has tripled in some areas close to Wuhan, China. There is no reason to believe that the situation will be different in other parts of the world.
In February for example, the police station in Jianli County, close to Wuhan, received three times more reports of domestic violence than usual. “According to our statistics, 90% of the causes of violence are related to the COVID-19 epidemic,” says Wan Fei, a retired police officer and founder of an anti-domestic violence nonprofit, in an interview with Sixth Tone.
For the World Health Organization, it is clear that natural disasters aggravate domestic violence. And while the Coronavirus outbreak isn’t an earthquake or a tsunami, the economic and emotional distress could have a similar impact on individuals.
The desire of the abuser to control the situation, paired with the fact that the victim has no way out during the lockdown, could create an explosive mix.
Katie Ray-Jones, the CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline in the US, shares this sentiment. “Abuse is about power and control, and an abuser can use any tool to exert just that, including a national health concern such as COVID-19,” she tells Refinery29.
This lockdown could make the number of incidences of domestic violence skyrocket, as other disasters have done in history.
Contrary to common belief, the increase in violence doesn’t only happen in relationships that are already abusive. An Australian study after the Black Saturday bushfires concludes that even people who had never experienced violence before became victims.
It’s the impression that they have failed to prevent the disaster that drives an intimate partner or parent to become abusive, according to the Australian study. They compensate their perceived failure with overt control that they exert on their victims.
Similarly, the lack of control on their household income during the Coronavirus epidemic could trigger outbreaks of domestic violence. What’s more, the victim often has nowhere to go since they’re locked down with their abuser — so the resulting injuries and traumas are likely to be worse.
This is already manifesting in the US, as Cook Children’s hospital in Texas had four times more young patients from domestic abuse than usual. And with hospitals that will soon be packed with Corona-patients, the outlook for severely injured victims is grim.
Even if victims think of leaving the house, they will be drawn back by the risk of infection and the prospect of fully packed emergency rooms. In addition, many shelters have restricted access or are fully shut down to mitigate the spread of the virus.
In Europe, even online and phone services may be reduced during the lockdown. While court cases of domestic violence are still being dealt with during the lockdown in France, the French emergency hotline, 3919, is running under reduced service. This further exacerbates the situation for victims.
Thankfully, there is hope on the horizon. Not only are there discussions about getting the 3919 hotline up to full service again. Many safety lines have added escape buttons on their websites, which immediately close the site and delete it from the cookies so the abuser cannot see whether it has been visited. And many sites help victims come up with a safety plan in times of lockdown, so they know in advance what to do if the situation escalates.