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Domestic Violence Is a Pandemic Within the COVID-19 Pandemic

9 minute read

The last thing Sheila wanted to do on May 21 was drive her car. Getting behind the wheel with a concussion, multiple skull hematomas, and bruises and abrasions across her body was a decidedly bad idea. But it was the only way her husband would have let her out of the house.

She told him she was going out to buy him cigarettes. The truth was, Sheila (a pseudonym to protect her identity) was heading to meet her pastor’s wife, who worked at one of the offices in the city hall of her small Nebraska town, seeking help to escape the domestic hell in which she’d been living since the start of spring. That was when the first wave of COVID-19 began and the economy collapsed, taking the trucking business her husband had started down with it. That too was when she, her husband and their four children were, like hundreds of millions of other people, forced into the high-stress, close quarters life of pandemic lockdowns.

And that too, she says, is when the beatings began. No sooner did the lockdown start than he began using methamphetamine, according to Sheila, soon developing a consuming delusion that she was cheating on him and hiding a secret computer tablet somewhere in the house on which he would find evidence of her infidelity. He first confronted her in March, just as the quarantining began—and first struck her then too.

“He smacked me hard, I hit the floor, and then he dumped his drink in my face,” she says.

Her escape on May 21 put an end to the abuse. With the help of her pastor and his wife, she connected with Bright Horizons, a shelter and advocacy group for people who have experienced domestic abuse or sexual violence, and separated from her husband, with divorce proceedings now underway. Additionally, law enforcement intervened, and her husband is now facing possible jail time for his behavior.

Growing evidence shows the pandemic has made intimate partner violence more common—and often more severe. “COVID doesn’t make an abuser,” says Jacky Mulveen, project manager of Women’s Empowerment and Recovery Educators (WE:ARE), an advocacy and support group in Birmingham, England. “But COVID exacerbates it. It gives them more tools, more chances to control you. The abuser says, ‘You can’t go out; you’re not going anywhere,’ and the government also is saying, ‘You have to stay in.'”

That was Sheila’s experience. “The abuse was going to happen anyway,” she says. “Having the excuse of there’s nowhere to go, there’s nothing to do, didn’t help.”

Surveys around the world have shown domestic abuse spiking since January of 2020—jumping markedly year over year compared to the same period in 2019. According to the American Journal of Emergency Medicine and the United Nations group U.N. Women, when the pandemic began, incidents of domestic violence increased 300% in Hubei, China; 25% in Argentina, 30% in Cyprus, 33% in Singapore and 50% in Brazil. The U.K., where calls to domestic violence hotlines have soared since the pandemic hit, was particularly shaken in June by the death of Amy-Leanne Stringfellow, 26, a mother of one and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, allegedly at the hands of her 45-year-old boyfriend.

In the U.S., the situation is equally troubling, with police departments reporting increases in cities around the country: for example, 18% in San Antonio, 22% in Portland, Ore.; and 10% in New York City, according to the American Journal of Emergency Medicine. One study in the journal Radiology reports that at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, radiology scans and superficial wounds consistent with domestic abuse from March 11 to May 3 of this year exceeded the totals for the same period in 2018 and 2019 combined.

And as the pandemic has dragged on, so too has the abuse. Just as the disease continues to claim more lives, quarantine-linked domestic violence is claiming more victims—and not just women in heterosexual relationships. Intimate partner violence occurs in same-sex couples at rates equal to or even higher than the rates in opposite sex partners. What’s more, the economic challenges of the pandemic have hit same-sex couples especially hard, with members of the LGBTQ community likelier to be employed in highly affected industries like education, restaurants, hospitals and retail, according to the Human Rights Campaign Foundation. That means higher stress and, concomitantly, the higher risk that that stress will explode into violence.

As with so many things, communities of color are affected more severely as well, with systemic inequities often meaning lower income and less access to social and private services. “While one in three white women report having experienced domestic violence [during the pandemic], the rates of abuse increased dramatically to about 50% and higher for those marginalized by race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, citizenship status, and cognitive physical ability,” says Erika Sussman, executive director of the Center for Survivor Advocacy and Justice (CSAJ), a support and research organization.

Not everyone can make the clean escape Sheila did, with the usual options for trapped women, like calling hotlines, even less available than usual during the pandemic. “How much harder is it for them to call when their abuser is quarantining with them as well, sitting on the couch next to them or in the other room?” asks Cassie Mecklenberg, executive director of Sheltering Wings, a shelter and support group for abused partners in Danville, Ind. Even if it’s possible to call a shelter, in times of pandemic it can be difficult to secure a bed in one, as social distancing has forced such facilities to reduce their capacity to limit the risk of spreading the virus.

With safe harbors cut off, more and more people are left suffering what the United Nations calls “a shadow pandemic” of domestic abuse within the larger pandemic of the virus itself. Only when the second one lifts, will the full scope of the first one be known.

Alone together

Isolation has always been one of the most powerful weapons in the abuser’s arsenal. At first the attention seems benign, even caring, with abusers burrowing themselves deeper and deeper into the victim’s daily life. Only later, does the darker purpose become evident.

“At the beginning, a partner’s offer of ‘I’ll take you there. I’ll give you a lift. I’ll pick you up. I’ll come shopping with you,’ can seem romantic,” says Mulveen, of WE:ARE, who suffered and survived her own abusive relationship in the 1990s. “They’ll say, ‘Are you going out with your friends? I’ll come with you.'”

But what at first seems like an effort at partnering can quickly start to feel like an attempt to take control, and before long, the abuser no longer likes the friends, no longer allows the victim to go shopping alone. “Quite quickly,” says Mulveen of her own experience, “he’s coming in from work, he’s really tired and saying, ‘I don’t want any phone calls or people calling.’ Your brain is on constant high alert. If there was music he didn’t like and it came on the radio and he wasn’t in the house, I’d turn it down just in case.”

When there’s little to no time apart, such abuse can grow worse, quickly. Even with the difficulty many victims have had phoning hotlines during the pandemic, calls from people experiencing domestic violence in the U.K. jumped 200% in the spring of 2020 compared to call volume before the lockdowns began, according to Refuge, a U.K.-based domestic violence charity. People who could not safely make a call began finding other ways to reach out—slipping off to the bathroom with their smartphones with them and texting instead, reports Caroline Bradbury-Jones, a professor of gender-based violence and health at the University of Birmingham in the U.K.

Breaking free

Abusers are exceedingly good manipulators, toggling between threats and wheedling—often pleading for forgiveness and promising to do better in the future. Those strategies can be diabolically effective at all times, but during the pandemic, they have particular power since quarantining and related problems like job loss are legitimate challenges; that is, they can be real problems that would cause tension even in the most stable relationships. In an abusive relationship, however, these very legitimate problems become a pretext for very illegitimate behavior. “Sometimes what happens is people might justify the abuse because the perpetrator is just really stressed and wouldn’t otherwise do this,” says Mecklenburg.

This makes it harder to get out and, just as challenging, to stay out. Mecklenburg says that on average, survivors return to the relationship seven times before they leave for good. Bradbury-Jones puts the figure at eight, but either way, leaving isn’t easy—especially when the abuser plays the pandemic card as an excuse for the violent behavior.

In the marginalized communities the CSAJ studied, making a break can be more difficult still. The lack of basic service like access to transportation and day care increase the obstacles to making a clean escape. So too can the absence of shelters in some communities and inadequate income to afford the legal services necessary to dissolve an abusive marriage and resolve issues like child support and visitation rights.

Women who have managed to leave abusive relationships in the past year have often, somewhat paradoxically, found quarantining helpful in their recovery. Lockdowns don’t just prevent the victims from going out, after all, they also keep the abuser at home, providing an obstacle that can help prevent former partners from reconnecting. In Bradbury-Jones’ interviews with domestic abuse survivors, she has heard repeatedly that the easing of quarantine restrictions fills them with a very real unease.

“In that context, a lockdown was like a savior,” she says.

Eventually, as vaccines roll out and case counts at last drop, all of the quarantining will end, and partners who were abused during lockdown may begin to re-emerge into the world, newly free to leave their tormentors behind. “COVID gave my husband an excuse to hold me there,” says Sheila today. If the uptick in calls the shelters have been receiving during lockdowns is any indication, there could be a lot of such flights to freedom to come. None of them will be easy. Many of them will be scary. No less than the battle against the COVID pandemic, the battle against the abuse pandemic is certain to be an ongoing one.

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com