On 27 May 2020, when the world was in the depths of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, UN Women released an awareness-raising campaign highlighting the potential for a ‘shadow pandemic’ to emerge in the form of escalating intimate partner violence as a result of stay-at-home orders.
While some countries are beginning to reopen, billions of people are estimated to still be sheltering at home. When households are placed under the increased strains that come from security, health and money worries, and cramped and confined living conditions, levels of… violence spike.
The Family Violence Death Review Committee has highlighted the overlap between intimate partner violence and child abuse and neglect. Indeed, where violence is left unaddressed, there are also increased risks of other forms of family violence, such as elder abuse and violence between adult siblings, which have increased in Aotearoa New Zealand this year.
However, it is difficult to count an escalation in violence. We won’t see an increase in the number of victims/survivors. The reality is that for those who have experienced violence in the past, their experience is likely to worsen.
People who work in the family violence sector understood that the ‘shadow pandemic’ was unlikely to hit its peak during the initial wave of COVID-19. Family violence thrives where there is a power imbalance and is fed by stressors such as job losses, financial strain, housing insecurity and mental ill health. These were likely to worsen as the long tail of COVID-19 stretched into the future. The sector knew we were sitting on a ticking time-bomb.
Unfortunately, it appears that the Delta variant has lit the fuse.
While we have been otherwise distracted by level 4 lockdowns, the family violence sector has been working hard to address the escalation in violence within homes. However, as many commentators have indicated, this lockdown is a lot worse than previous experiences, and our homicide statistics tell this story. In seven weeks, we have seen eight family violence homicides. We know the experience of family violence fuels the risks of death by suicide. It is unclear how many more we have lost over this time through family violence related suicide.
The fear induced around the Delta variant is playing into the hands of abusers. It is easier to control people if you can refer to the need to stay in your bubble. Tightened controls over borders will also limit options for safety. In the first wave of COVID-19, there was a reduction in the number of people seeking help through emergency departments. Media coverage describing incursions of COVID-19 into the hospital system fuels anxiety about presenting at an emergency department. This further reduces help-seeking options for victims/survivors.
There is a lot of evidence that points towards an escalation of family violence as a result of natural disasters, war and in times of pandemics. Many Aotearoa New Zealand researchers have written on this topic. We knew the potential for an escalation was there.
In the face of eight family violence homicides, it is time family violence was treated seriously in Aotearoa.
Where we have offenders bound by police safety orders, there is a need to direct them towards emergency housing providers. Our community services support the needs of family and whānau with more complex and enduring problems. These services need to be available, accessible and adequately resourced to respond.
To support this, we need those working in government agencies to understand their role in preventing violence (and the escalation of such). Government services need to understand the impact of limiting access to adequate housing and mental health services (for example). In this Mental Health Awareness Week and in the future, we need to understand the contribution of violence experience to mental ill health, on which COVID-19 is also taking its toll. Research on our mental health in Aotearoa New Zealand suggests our baseline levels of distress have remained elevated from the first lockdown. People, especially our young people, are finding it tougher this time around.
What about families, whānau and friends? We need to keep those lines of communication open – reach out to those families, whānau or friends who have become isolated. If people are concerned about their own safety or the safety of someone they know, listen to and hear what they are saying. Try not to minimise. If you have the opportunity, support them to find help or offer to contact support services on their behalf. Family violence services know how to respond and know how to support people. They are essential services and are available.
It is ok to ask people if they are not ok. It will do no harm and you have nothing to lose.
If you are really concerned about the safety of someone, and think there is an immediate risk, dial 111.