Hidden Epidemic: Domestic Violence Crisis during Covid-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has created extraordinary pressures that have transformed nearly all aspects of society. Public safety mandates including social distancing, isolation, quarantine, and ‘stay at home’ measures have been widely implemented across the UK. Unfortunately, in employing large-scale mitigation efforts to protect public health through lockdown policies, the vulnerabilities of many at-risk populations may have been exacerbated (1). This includes the significant proportion of the population that experiences domestic violence (DV); the ‘stay at home’ mandate intensifies the danger this group faces from their abusers (1). DV, often used interchangeably with intimate partner violence, includes the use of emotional (threats, intimidation, manipulation), physical, sexual, or economic abuse by a current or former intimate partner (1,2,3). Decades of work have documented DV’s far-reaching health, societal, and economic consequences (1), which include (but are not limited to) anxiety, depression, cardiovascular disease, gynaecological disorders and chronic pain syndromes (4,5,6). Evidence Addressing Impact of COVID-19 on Victims of Domestic Violence Domestic violence has reportedly risen by somewhere between 25% and 80% since the implementation of lockdown measures, dependent on the data source referred to (victim support charities, domestic abuse helplines and frontline reports) (7,8,9,10); the discrepancy between these sources’ results has led to such a wide estimate. For example, a recent survey (11) conducted in England – the Women’s Aid June Survivor survey 2020 - looked at the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on survivors’ experiences of abuse and some of the ways in which perpetrators are using COVID-19 as a tool for coercive and controlling behaviour. Findings showed that 91% of respondents believed that the pandemic impacted their experiences of abuse in one or more ways. Furthermore, 50.7% of the respondents believed that the abuse that they experience had gotten worse since COVID-19 began; 52% felt more afraid during lockdown and 58% felt they had no one to turn to for help during this period. The pandemic itself was also shown to be used as a tool to further abuse; around 38% of respondents noted that their abuser refused to take precautions to stop the spread of the virus (social distancing, handwashing) when justifying their coercive methods (11,12). These findings contrast starkly to the picture created by UK police records; here, daily counts of DV incidents and crimes have remained relatively low and stable even throughout the current pandemic (14, 15). This observation, however, may reflect low reporting tendencies (as the vast majority of victims do not report incidences to police) that may themselves be exacerbated by lockdown measures (14). The conflict between the incidence of DV reported by charities and police records (calls/crime data) affects researchers’ ability to precisely quantify the overall impact of the unfolding COVID-19 crisis on this issue. Optimal policy responses to support victims of DV can only be implemented if the scale of the problem is known. But, as shown, due to data limitation and the pandemic this becomes more difficult. UK Response to Domestic Violence during COVID-19 On 4th January 2021, Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressed the nation on coronavirus. The new ‘stay at home’ (Tier 4) measure stipulated that someone may only leave home for limited reasons that are permitted by law including to escape domestic violence (13) – the same provision existed during earlier lockdowns. Additionally, the government has provided updated guidance on this matter as of August 2020 to provide resources, support, and information on getting help to escape DV during the COVID-19 outbreak for those who need it. Although clearly specifying that the ‘stay at home’ directive does not apply to someone who needs support to escape domestic violence is the first step to protecting victims (2), there are a range of pandemic-related factors that may make it more difficult to leave that must be acknowledged. Factors such as the continuous presence of the abuser – either due to furlough schemes or working from home arrangements – and victims’ possible economic dependence may make leaving prohibitively expensive. Provisions to address these additional barriers to escape must be put in place as a matter of urgency. Recommendations It is important to highlight that under-reporting on broader social issues is exceedingly likely during times of crisis. While an evidence-based approach is best practice, for stigmatised and concealed issues a proactive response may need to be taken to respond to any indication that suffering is increasing. However, efforts must still be made to generate DV indicators that are valid and can measure the real impact of COVID-19 on the incidence of victims, their experiences and their needs. There is a need for more intensive research on this subject, ideally incorporating first-hand accounts. Through more research and more appropriate metrics, an accurate picture of the relationship between COVID-19 and DV can be observed; this is the backdrop needed for effective policy to be created and implemented.
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