By Kaia Fisher ’22 and Katya Tolunsky ’22
Due to COVID-19 and the resulting measures of social isolation, reports of domestic violence have skyrocketed to unprecedented levels around the world. Lockdowns across the globe have sought to contain the virulent and fast-spreading virus, but such restrictions have increased the risks associated with domestic violence, especially for women and children. Data from many countries, specifically the United States and China, shows significant increases in “intimate terrorism,” a term coined by experts on domestic abuse. Even though one’s home is meant to be a sanctuary in which they are safe from the virus, it can be a dangerous place for some families. Many victims are being forced to live in violent households without access to domestic abuse hotlines, lawyers, friends or family, or other resources. Today, rising numbers of infected people, growing unemployment, increased anxiety, financial stress, and the imposed lockdown have collectively exacerbated the domestic violence crisis.
With COVID-19 causing family units to shelter in place, researchers have found a direct link between the imposed lockdown and an increase in domestic violence reports. Studies show that domestic violence increases whenever families spend more time together. Therefore, it came as no surprise that the number of reported cases of domestic violence rose dramatically during the near-worldwide lockdown. In Jingzhou, China, police officers received three times as many domestic violence calls this past February as they did in February 2019. In the United States, The Atlantic concluded that a financial strain has been linked to increases in the frequency and severity of domestic abuse.
One study found that a one percent increase in the unemployment rate leads to a 25 percent increase in child neglect and a twelve percent increase in physical abuse. There is a direct connection between the economic devastation that COVID-19 has caused and the rise in domestic violence reports.
According to the New York Times, abusers are more likely to murder their partners in the wake of personal crises, including lost jobs or major financial setbacks. Major catastrophic events, such as natural disasters or global pandemics, can lead to an increase in the risk of domestic and family violence. Alcohol is also widely considered to be a key predictor of domestic violence, primarily due to its effect on aggression. According to magazine Psychology Today, as the nation has been sheltered at home, sales of alcohol have skyrocketed, with some sales rising as much as 243 percent. Generally, someone living with an abuser and feeling unsafe might be able to call a help hotline, the police, or a friend or family member when the abuser is out of the house. However, under shelter-in-place orders, the abuser may never leave the house long enough for that call to take place. Quarantine forces victims into perpetual proximity to their abuser and leaving the house exposes them not just to a deadly virus but to a closed community.
Domestic abuse hotlines are currently overwhelmed with abuse reports, leaving governments trying to address a crisis that many experts say they should have seen coming. Institutions and organizations that are supposed to protect victims from domestic violence, many underfunded to begin with, are now struggling more than ever to respond to the spike in abuse reports. Consequently, the demand for social services and assistance has increased dramatically. Social, health, and legal service providers—such as shelters, food banks, legal aid offices, childcare centers, health-care facilities, and rape crisis centers—are significantly overburdened and understaffed. While they typically serve as a safe haven for victims, abuse shelters are now experiencing health concerns and closures due to their group living arrangements. Even when these shelters are able to remain open, victims might be reluctant to expose themselves to high volumes of people in close quarters. Additionally, many legal aid organizations and advocates are being forced to work remotely. According to Psychology Today, it is also possible that some judges will be reluctant to hold abusers in jail due to the increased risk of COVID-19 infections in state facilities. The pandemic has created the perfect storm for domestic abuse by magnifying many of the common factors associated with domestic violence and restricting the resources available for help.
Divorce rates in China have drastically increased amid the global pandemic, further reiterating the virus’s negative effect on households. In Bloomberg Businessweek, Mrs. Wu, a housewife in China, recounts how she and her husband have fought constantly through their two-month lockdown. She explains how stressors and everyday irritants, such as household chores and childcare, are magnified and cause constant fighting. A Shanghai divorce lawyer says his caseload has increased by 25 percent since the city’s lockdown.
He explains that the increase in divorce rates comes from the fact that “the more time [couples] spend together, the more they hate each other.”
Global News claimed that staff members didn’t even have time to drink water because so many people were lined up to file for a divorce. With divorce rates in China rising due to the forced measures of social isolation often within non-abusive relationships, one can only imagine when victims are forced to quarantine with an abuser. Infidelity used to be the main cause for divorce, but now it’s the extensive alone time partners are forced to spend together due to the lockdown. Often after a couple gets a divorce, they separate from each other in different households, but now with COVID-19, couples are forced to stay in the same homes leading to a tense and sometimes aggressive environment that fosters abuse.
Many social services have adopted new methods to help domestic abuse victims in order to cope with social distancing guidelines. According to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), many countries have shifted to virtual court hearings, facilitated online methods for obtaining protection orders, and successfully communicated their intentions to continue to provide legal protections to victims and survivors. As quarantines continue, the danger is likely to intensify for victims of domestic violence, and lockdowns will foster an environment that favors the abuser. Many experts believe that the pandemic will affect long-term progress towards ending domestic violence. Elected officials and the general public are now more aware of the prevalence of domestic abuse, and the connection between physical violence and economic insecurity is suddenly more tangible and clear. There is now an opportunity to shed light on the economic factors of domestic violence and consider approaches that address its root causes.