A New Covid-19 Crisis: Domestic Abuse Rises Worldwide

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The Interpreter

Movement restrictions aimed to stop the spread of the coronavirus may be making violence in homes more frequent, more severe and more dangerous.

Movement limits imposed by countries around the world have forced people to spend much more time at home, leading to a surge in domestic abuse cases. Movement limits imposed by countries around the world have forced people to spend much more time at home, leading to a surge in domestic abuse cases.Credit…Federico Rios for The New York Times Amanda Taub

  • Published April 6, 2020Updated April 14, 2020

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Add another public health crisis to the toll of the new coronavirus: Mounting data suggests that domestic abuse is acting like an opportunistic infection, flourishing in the conditions created by the pandemic.

There was every reason to believe that the restrictions imposed to keep the virus from spreading would have such an effect, said Marianne Hester, a Bristol University sociologist who studies abusive relationships. Domestic violence goes up whenever families spend more time together, such as the Christmas and summer vacations, she said.

Now, with families in lockdown worldwide, hotlines are lighting up with abuse reports, leaving governments trying to address a crisis that experts say they should have seen coming.

[Read: As coronavirus grips Russia, an age-old bane returns: drinking]

The United Nations called on Sunday for urgent action to combat the worldwide surge in domestic violence. “I urge all governments to put women’s safety first as they respond to the pandemic,” Secretary General António Guterres wrote on Twitter.

But governments largely failed to prepare for the way the new public health measures would create opportunities for abusers to terrorize their victims. Now, many are scrambling to offer services to those at risk.

But, as with the response to the virus itself, the delays mean that irreparable harm may already have occurred.

As cities and towns across China locked down, a 26-year-old woman named Lele found herself entangled in more and more arguments with her husband, with whom she now had to spend every hour in their home in Anhui Province, in eastern China.

On March 1, while Lele was holding her 11-month-old daughter, her husband began to beat her with a high chair. She is not sure how many times he hit her. Eventually, she says, one of her legs lost feeling and she fell to the ground, still holding the baby in her arms.

A photograph she took after the incident shows the high chair lying on the floor in pieces, two of its metal legs snapped off — evidence of the force with which her husband wielded it against her. Another image documents Lele’s injuries: Nearly every inch of her lower legs was covered in bruises, a huge hematoma blooming on her left calf.

Lele — her full name is not being used for her safety — said that her husband had abused her throughout their six-year relationship, but that the Covid-19 outbreak made things far worse.

“During the epidemic, we were unable to go outside, and our conflicts just grew bigger and bigger and more and more frequent,” she said. “Everything was exposed.”

ImageMounting data suggest that domestic abuse is flourishing in the conditions created by the pandemic. Mounting data suggest that domestic abuse is flourishing in the conditions created by the pandemic.Credit…Yuyang Liu for The New York Times

As quarantines take effect around the world, that kind of “intimate terrorism” — a term many experts prefer for domestic violence — is flourishing.

In China, a Beijing-based NGO dedicated to combating violence against women, Equality, has seen a surge in calls to its help line since early February, when the government locked down cities in Hubei Province, then the outbreak’s epicenter.

In Spain, the emergency number for domestic violence received 18 percent more calls in the first two weeks of lockdown than in the same period a month earlier.

“We’ve been getting some very distressing calls, showing us clearly just how intense psychological as well as physical mistreatment can get when people are kept 24 hours a day together within a reduced space,” said Ana Bella, who set up a foundation to help other women after surviving domestic violence herself.

On Thursday, the French police reported a nationwide spike of about 30 percent in domestic violence. Christophe Castaner, the French interior minister, said he had asked officers to be on the lookout for abuse.

“The risk increases due to confinement,” he said in an interview on French television.

In Spain, with the help of women’s associations, The New York Times contacted women stuck at home with an abusive husband or partner and conducted interviews over WhatsApp.

One of them, Ana — who asked that her full name be withheld — shares an apartment with her partner, and says he has been regularly abusing her. He insists on total surveillance at all times. If she tries to lock herself in a room, he kicks the door until she opens it.

“I can’t even have privacy in the bathroom — and now I have to endure this in a lockdown,” she wrote in a message sent late at night, to hide the communication from her husband.

Judith Lewis Herman, a renowned trauma expert at Harvard University Medical School, has found that the coercive methods domestic abusers use to control their partners and children “bear an uncanny resemblance” to those kidnappers use to control hostages and repressive regimes use to break the will of political prisoners.

“We can come to your place after the crisis,” the authorities are said to have told one abuse victim in China.Credit…Yuyang Liu for The New York Times

“The methods which enable one human being to control another are remarkably consistent,” she wrote in a widely cited 1992 journal article. “While perpetrators of organized political or sexual exploitation may instruct each other in coercive methods, perpetrators of domestic abuse appear to reinvent them.”

In addition to physical violence, which is not present in every abusive relationship, common tools of abuse include isolation from friends, family and employment; constant surveillance; strict, detailed rules for behavior; and restrictions on access to such basic necessities as food, clothing and sanitary facilities.

Home isolation, however vital to the fight against the pandemic, is giving still more power to the abuser, Dr. Hester said. “If suddenly people have got to be at home,” she said, “that gives him an opportunity, suddenly, to call the shots around that. To say what she should be doing or shouldn’t.”

The isolation has also shattered support networks, making it far more difficult for victims to get help or escape.

After her husband attacked her with the high chair, Lele limped to the next room and called the police. When they arrived, however, they only documented the attack, then took no further action.

Next, she hired a lawyer and filed for divorce — only to find that the epidemic had cut off that avenue of escape, too. Her divorce proceeding was postponed until April. She is still waiting for the court’s decision.

And finding a new home amid the outbreak proved difficult, forcing Lele and her daughter to continue to live with their abuser for weeks.

    • How do we start exercising again without hurting ourselves after months of lockdown?

      Exercise researchers and physicians have some blunt advice for those of us aiming to return to regular exercise now: Start slowly and then rev up your workouts, also slowly. American adults tended to be about 12 percent less active after the stay-at-home mandates began in March than they were in January. But there are steps you can take to ease your way back into regular exercise safely. First, “start at no more than 50 percent of the exercise you were doing before Covid,” says Dr. Monica Rho, the chief of musculoskeletal medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. Thread in some preparatory squats, too, she advises. “When you haven’t been exercising, you lose muscle mass.” Expect some muscle twinges after these preliminary, post-lockdown sessions, especially a day or two later. But sudden or increasing pain during exercise is a clarion call to stop and return home.

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      More than 40 million people — the equivalent of 1 in 4 U.S. workers — have filed for unemployment benefits since the pandemic took hold. One in five who were working in February reported losing a job or being furloughed in March or the beginning of April, data from a Federal Reserve survey released on May 14 showed, and that pain was highly concentrated among low earners. Fully 39 percent of former workers living in a household earning $40,000 or less lost work, compared with 13 percent in those making more than $100,000, a Fed official said.

    • How do I take my temperature?

      Taking one’s temperature to look for signs of fever is not as easy as it sounds, as “normal” temperature numbers can vary, but generally, keep an eye out for a temperature of 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. If you don’t have a thermometer (they can be pricey these days), there are other ways to figure out if you have a fever, or are at risk of Covid-19 complications.

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

    • How can I help?

      Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the American Red Cross, and World Central Kitchen has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities.

It is a pattern playing out around the world.

Institutions that are supposed to protect women from domestic violence, many weak and underfunded to begin with, are now straining to respond to the increased demand.

Feng Yuan, a co-founder of Equality, the Chinese advocacy group, said she had one client who called an emergency line only to be told the police were too overstretched to help her. “We can come to your place after the crisis,” she recounted the operator saying.

In Europe, one country after another seems to have followed the same grim path: First, governments impose lockdowns without making sufficient provisions for domestic abuse victims. About 10 days later, distress calls spike, setting off a public outcry. Only then do the governments scramble to improvise solutions.

Italy was first.

Its lockdown began in early March. Soon after that, domestic violence reports began to rise, but there was nowhere for newly desperate women to go. Shelters could not take them because the risk of infection was too great.

So the government said local authorities could requisition hotel rooms to serve as makeshift shelters where victims could quarantine safely.

Soon after Italy went on lockdown, domestic violence shelters began to fill up.Credit…Alessandro Grassani for The New York Times

Spain announced its lockdown on March 14; France’s began three days later. About two weeks later, with abuse reports soaring, officials there announced that they, too, planned to turn vacant hotel rooms into shelters, among other emergency efforts.

In Britain, the authorities waited longer before imposing a lockdown.

Ten days before it began on March 23, The New York Times contacted the Home Office about what it planned to do about domestic violence. The response: Only “existing sources of advice and support” would be available. The government later published a list of hotlines and apps that victims could use to call for help, but only one was specifically tailored for the Covid-19 crisis.

By a week into lockdown, Avon and Somerset, in the southwest of the country, said domestic abuse reports were already up by 20 percent, and local forces elsewhere were bracing for the same.

Last week, after dozens of civic groups signed an open letter to the government calling for action, officials pledged to respond, without offering specifics.

“Supporting victims of domestic abuse is a priority for the home secretary, and she is fully aware of the distress and anxiety this period may cause to those suffering or at risk of domestic abuse,” the Home Office said in a statement. “We are working with the police, domestic abuse charities, help lines and front-line workers to support and protect people,.”

It also said victims could “disregard orders to stay at home if they need to seek immediate refuge.”

Eventually, the lockdowns will end. But as the confinement drags on, the danger seems likely to intensify. Studies show that abusers are more likely to murder their partners and others in the wake of personal crises, including lost jobs or major financial setbacks.

With Covid-19 ravaging the economy, such crises are set to become much more frequent.

Reporting was contributed by Raphael Minder from Spain, Vivian Wang from Hong Kong, Constant Méheut from France and Elisabetta Povoledo from Italy.

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