Coronavirus mandatory lockdowns are sweeping the globe, and for good reason — the COVID-19 pandemic can only be controlled through drastic social measures such as enforced quarantine and the implementation of strict, social distancing policies that suppress opportunities for transmission.
Frightening estimates from Imperial College London show that up to 2.2 million Americans — mainly older adults, those who are immunocompromised or those who have other preexisting health conditions such as diabetes or lung disease — might die as a result of contracting COVID-19. Healthcare systems could become overwhelmed if widespread social distancing and mitigation policies aren’t adopted quickly. But while public health experts are focused on the macro scale, some individuals are inevitably overlooked. We often lose sight of those who might be negatively affected by broad restrictions on movement and connection to social services. In particular, quarantine and lockdowns may increase rates of domestic and intimate partner violence.
According to conservative estimates, the National Coalition Against Sexual Violence reports that one in three women and one in four men will experience sexual violence in their lifetimes. And these numbers are often higher during times of extreme crises such as pandemics, natural disasters and wars.
These estimates also do not accurately capture the increased risk of sexual violence among minority groups, such as within the LGBTQ+ community or among immigrant populations. The National Domestic Violence Hotline has seen an increase in callers reporting abusers who used COVID-19 as a way to isolate victims from their families and social networks.
Social distancing and isolation policies during mandatory lockdowns can augment rates of violence by trapping victims in their homes with their abusers and preventing them from reaching out to others for help. Fears of giving the virus to vulnerable, elderly family members or travel bans might prevent victims from leaving emotionally and physically abusive situations or seeking refuge in their parents’ homes. Abusers might emotionally manipulate their victims by pretending to have symptoms of COVID-19 (or they may actually have the virus), forcing victims to self-quarantine with them out of fears of transmitting the virus to others.
Clinics and emergency responders that are overwhelmed by surging cases of COVID-19 might be unable to appropriately accommodate or respond to those seeking care related to domestic abuse. And fear of contracting the virus may stop victims from seeking care in the first place. Shelters might limit the number of residents or turn victims away in order to avoid overcrowding. Additionally, coronavirus-related budget cuts to social services for victims of intimate and domestic violence might limit service availability and quality.
Although telemedicine is widely available and is becoming increasingly popular and affordable, the expense and discomfort of discussing their abuse virtually with a provider — likely in close proximity to their abuser — may put quarantined victims at a higher risk for increased, retributive violence.
Lastly, the global recession, driven by mandatory business shutdowns as a result of stringent coronavirus prevention measures, might restrict victims from saving money to fund escape from abusive relationships or make them dependent on abusers for economic support.
Social distancing, lockdowns and enforced quarantines are all effective public health measures aimed to protect and save the most lives possible. But that shouldn’t allow us to ignore the consequences for those facing violence and harassment in the home. More needs to be done to protect victims of sexual violence amidst this global pandemic.
For those experiencing domestic violence or assault, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. If you cannot speak safely, visit thehotline.org or text LOVEIS to 22522. If you are a member of the Yale community, you can also call the SHARE at 203 432-2000. These resources are available 24/7.
RYAN SUTHERLAND is a Master of Public Health candidate at the Yale School of Public Health in the Social and Behavioral Science Department with a concentration in Global Health. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .