Public safety during COVID-19 must be (re)imagined for domestic abuse victims

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Content warning: domestic violence

The COVID-19 outbreak’s disruptive influence on conventional social life was not equally felt by everyone. On March 4, 2020, Gov. Newsom’s stay-at-home order was issued under a rhetoric of protection for public health and safety.  As we renegotiated our sense of security, “lockdown” would effectively become more than just an imperative and imposition for public safety. Instead, it became a harsh sentence on the movement, freedom and access to support for survivors of domestic and intimate partner violence. We must ask, then, for what and for whom is public safety ever realized? 

Necessarily, the rhetoric of public safety manufactures public consent for an adherence to a policy implemented during states of crisis for the elusive benefit of the public. For some, this can provide a sense of solidarity or security. For others, this can result in the implementation of policy with detrimental outcomes. For survivors of domestic violence and intimate partner violence (or IPV), this was the case.

Soon after the stay-at-home order was issued, reports of increases in domestic violence disseminated widely for those in the anti-violence movement. Often utilized as a first resort, domestic violence hotlines anticipated increases in the perpetration of IPV after the lockdown order. What was less predictable, however, was the rate of domestic violence increase, how survivors would ensure their safety while in isolation with their abuser, and how to best distribute resources. Domestic violence hotlines anticipated reports of increases in the perpetration of intimate partner violence (IPV).

In the U.S., domestic violence incidents were reported to have increased by 8.1% after jurisdictions imposed lockdown orders.

Another study focused on data from 14 American cities found a 9.7% increase in domestic violence calls for survivor support services during March and April 2020, before statewide stay-at-home mandates were issued. “Applied nationally, this finding means there were approximately 1,330 more domestic violence calls for service per day across the U.S. during the time period,” according to the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice. 

These reports reveal the paradoxical difficulty of women’s survival. In some regions, the number of domestic violence calls dropped by 50%. This may be due to the inability for survivors to safely and securely reach out. In Italy, the Italian National Department of Equal Opportunities reported a striking increase (1039 phone requests for help from April 1 to April 18, 2020 versus 397 requests in the same period in 2019) in women’s IPV-related requests for help utilizing phone counselling services.

At the same time, from February 21 to April 17, 2020, criminal proceedings for IPV cases decreased according to the prosecutor’s office in Milan. This pattern is not exclusive to Italy. During the initial period of the lockdown in the U.S. (starting from March 2020), some outlets reported instances of survivors receiving threats of eviction from those carrying out the abuse. Threatened exposure to COVID-19 became an additional point of leverage. How do we explain this? One interpretation of the data is particularly alarming.

For victims, the imposition of stay-at-home orders confined them to precarious, violent private spaces for the sake of public safety. This has made it very difficult for survivors to get the care they need.

The consequences of this “shadow pandemic,”or “pandemic within a pandemic,”  are manifold and cannot be overstated. Individuals who engage in IPV have been able to weaponize these restrictive measures to further subordinate, control and overpower women and survivors who have been isolated and are unable to seek help during the lockdown. The rationing of medical care in large hospitals and the risk of acquiring COVID-19 through outside exposure may have prevented survivors from pursuing medical care. Further, the lockdown and stay-at-home orders may have enabled abusers to engage in more psychological violence based on power, control and denigration of the victim while utilizing the virus as leverage. All of these factors coincide to create a dire situation for survivors in these conditions. 

Fundamentally, this pandemic reminds us of longstanding truths: Social determinants of health and their inequities deepen during a time of crisis. In tandem with this is the understanding that IPV does not discriminate or express bias. “One in four women and one in 10 men experience IPV, and violence can take various forms: It can be physical, emotional, sexual, or psychological.” IPV is bound to no identity in particular or to any singular kind of articulation. 

Multiple axes of identity and oppression, whether they be in race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, religion, citizenship and ability, influence and intersect to create unique conditions for each and every survivor. Disproportionately, however, such violence occurs in communities of color and in other marginalized groups. 

Perhaps as a cautionary tale, the pandemic and its transformational effects on survival reaffirm the harmful neglect of vulnerable populations in the context of structural inequality. Therefore, any effort toward preventing intimate partner violence must consider the full weight of the dynamic and consequential systemic features of our society. Carefully attending to the ways in which misogyny, sexism, ableism, classism, racism and homophobia (to list a few) shape our life circumstances, the relationships we are able to form and how we move in them is one of the many ways we can work toward preventing IPV.

Elias Nepa is a commission member of the Intimate Partner Violence Commission. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.