Coronavirus (COVID-19) mandatory lockdowns are sweeping the globe. And for good reason — with infections soaring to well over 450,000 globally and with over 60,000 confirmed cases in the U.S., 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.
Conservative graphs from the Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team others by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show frightening estimates that up to 2.2 million Americans — mainly older adults, those who are immuno-compromised, or those who have other pre-existing 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, largely a result of a lack of available ICU beds and severe shortages in ventilators and personal protective equipment that might increase coronavirus transmission and deaths. While the popular hashtag #FlattenTheCurve has encouraged people across the country to stay home from work and limit social engagement in an effort to stop the spread of this deadly virus, 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 nine men will experience sexual violence, and these numbers are often escalated during times of extreme crises such as pandemics, natural disasters and war. And these estimates do not accurately capture the increased risk of sexual violence within the LGBT+ community or other marginalized social groups (immigrants, etc.).
The National Domestic Violence Hotline has seen an increase in callers reporting abusers using 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 into staying by pretending to have symptoms of COVID-19 (or they may actually have the virus), forcing victims to self-quarantine with abusers out of fears of transmitting the virus to others.
Clinics and emergency responders who are overwhelmed by surging cases of COVID-19 might be unable to appropriately accommodate or respond to those seeking care related to domestic abuse, shelters might limit the numbers of residents or turn those seeking shelter from abusive partners away in order to avoid overcrowding, and Coronavirus-related budget cuts to social services for victims of intimate and domestic violence might limit service availability and quality. Fear of contracting the virus in healthcare settings also might stop some victims from seeking care at hospitals or clinics, forcing them to stay at home with their abuser.
And although telemedicine is widely available and is becoming increasingly popular and affordable, the expense or discomfort of discussing the specifics of their abuse with a provider virtually — 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.
Overall, national public health efforts to slow the transmission of the COVID-19 virus and protect those most vulnerable to infection have created unique scenarios that pose increased risk to those experiencing sexual violence. Lockdowns and social distance policies, budget cuts to IPV-related social services, fears of contracting COVID-19 in clinical settings or of transmitting the virus to vulnerable family members, and financial instability all create opportunities for abusers to perpetrate sexual violence and represent barriers that make it more difficult for victims to leave abusive relationships. More needs to be done to protect victims of sexual violence amidst this global pandemic.
For those experiencing domestic violence/assault: Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or 1-800-799-7233 for TTY. If you cannot speak safely, visit thehotline.org or text LOVEIS to 22522. You may also contact the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) or reach out to RAINN at www.rainn.org to be connected with a trained staff member from a local sexual assault service provider. 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.