The Other Pandemic

(Kyle Grillot/Reuters)
The evils of domestic violence and child abuse have been exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis.

Like the coronavirus, domestic violence has no respect for national borders, economic status, or social respectability. In fact, it’s striking to read of how similar the stories are in Midtown Manhattan, where the victims tend to be upper-middle class society women, and in the Nawuyo Village of Uganda, where 24-year-old Rahema Kyomuhendo found herself when the wave of global lockdowns in response to COVID-19 first made its presence felt in her life.

Rahema’s father, Sheikh Hussein Byaruhanga Husain, is a Muslim religious leader who decided to bring his daughter along with him on a 300-mile business trip from their home in Mbarara District to Nawuyo in early May. While staying with her aunt in Nawuyo, Rahema began to listen to a Christian radio station in order to pass the time. One evening, she phoned a Roman Catholic friend of her father’s to discuss what she was hearing in more depth. As Rahema later recalled to the Morning Star News:

She explained to me about Christ and the way of salvation, and I got convicted and accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior. As she was sharing Christ with me, I was so overjoyed, and my father heard my joy and woke up, came from his bedroom furiously, and started beating me up with blows, slaps and kicks.

At this point, Rahema was trapped in Nawuyo on account of a shelter-in-place order instituted by the government to fight the pandemic. She had no way of returning home to the broader social network of family and friends who might have restrained her father’s violent impulses. She was stuck, and powerless to resist as he set her on fire. Amazingly, she survived the assault, albeit with horrific burns on her legs, stomach, ribs, neck, and lower back, and is now recovering in hospital.

Across the globe, women like Rahema have suffered at the hands of domestic abusers during this pandemic. In France, reported cases of domestic violence rose 30 percent from the time a lockdown was imposed March 17 to the beginning of April. Countries as varied as Argentina, Cyprus, and Singapore saw similarly significant increases in reports after imposing their own lockdowns. Where I live, in the U.K., 16 women and girls were killed in suspected domestic homicides during the first month of the lockdown in March, over three times the number who were killed during the same time span last year — and more have died in the months since. I was ashamed to discover while writing this piece that two of those women lived no more than a few miles away from me. Elizabeth Dobbin, age 82, was found dead in the home she shared with her 32-year-old grandson in Larne, Northern Ireland, on March 30. Emma Jane McParland, 39, was stabbed to death in her Belfast home on April 30, and her son has been charged with her murder. In spite of how close I live to where these ladies died, I didn’t hear about their murders when they happened, at the height of the lockdown. I imagine that their stories were buried under the daily body-count of COVID victims on the news, and that their bodies were buried in the presence of no more than ten people, each observing the proper social-distancing guidelines, of course.

The bottom line here is that the coronavirus has exacerbated certain (in some cases mutually reinforcing) social evils that are incidental to it and that will not vanish once a vaccine arrives. Domestic violence is one such evil, and the data we now possess on it should force us to recalibrate our pandemic-response efforts accordingly.

There are several areas of public concern related to the lockdowns that need to be reframed in light of the data on domestic violence. The first is school re-openings. Teachers are some of the most frequent reporters of child abuse in the country. Given the amount of daily contact they have with children, they are often the first to spot malnutrition, bruises, or other wounds, and social workers rely heavily on their testimony when evaluating whether or not a child is in a dangerous domestic situation. With the lockdown and suspension not only of schools, but of day-care centers, clubs, and sports teams, vulnerable children now have little, if any, contact with the members of their community who would otherwise be able to spot suspicious patterns of behavior. In late March, a hospital in Fort Worth, Texas, reported six physical-abuse cases involving children in a single week; the usual number is about eight a month. The National Sexual Assault Hotline saw an increase in calls from children during March, the first month of lockdown, compared with February. And yet, statistics like these simply never come up in the debate over re-opening schools.

Another dimension of the lockdowns that looks very different in light of this other pandemic is unemployment. According to the National Institute of Justice, “intimate partner violence is more likely to occur when couples are under financial strain.” More specifically, it is the subjective impression of financial strain that leads to spikes in domestic violence. According to one NIJ study, “the violence for couples experiencing low levels of subjective financial strain was 2.7 percent compared to 9.5 for couples experiencing high levels of subjective financial strain.” Another study by Dan Brown and Elisabetta de Cao demonstrated that “unemployment increased the neglect and physical abuse of children in the United States during the period from 2004 to 2012,” and included the truly staggering finding that “a one percentage point increase in the unemployment rate led to a 25 percent increase in neglect and a 12 percent increase in physical abuse.”

All of this should disabuse us of the notion that there’s a straightforward choice to be made between lockdowns that serve the interests of public health and reckless libertarian reopenings that only serve the interests of corporate raiders and robber-barons. Every public-policy decision is made at the nexus of a bafflingly complicated combination of delicate trade-offs, each with an ever-multiplying series of unseen and unintended consequences. Lockdowns are no different. We now know many things about what happens to American society when the government puts the economy into deep-freeze that we didn’t know at the start of this year. One of the things we know is that more lockdowns mean more battered women and children. Every politician should, at least, be forced to publicly admit as much by their constituents. Legislators are, to be fair, in the almost-impossible position of having to determine which challenges pose the greatest threat to the lives and livelihoods of their citizens: those created by the virus or those created by the lockdowns. The answer will be different in each locality, which is why the most important action to take in political terms is to devolve power over lockdown restrictions to the most local level possible. But if civil magistrates pretend not to see this particular ugly consequence of government responses to this disease, they merely consign themselves to the periphery of Dante’s Inferno with all the other cowards of Adam’s race.

Ultimately, the scourge of domestic violence will outlive this pandemic. According to a Women’s Aid Survivor Survey, 67 percent of women who are now experiencing abuse say it has gotten worse and 72 percent say their abuser has had more control over their life since the pandemic began. Something must be done to help these women. Domestic violence is a notoriously difficult problem to tackle directly, given the level of control often exercised by perpetrators over their victims. As a result, the best way to help is to do so indirectly, which is to say that we need to talk about domestic violence in public far more often and far more forcefully than we do now. The wider public has often been as neglectful of this issue as abusers themselves are of their victims. This creates a social context in which it is harder and harder for victims to believe that their suffering is serious, or undeserved, or something that others care about deeply. A nation that kicked and screamed and yelled as loudly as possible at every opportunity against the practice of domestic abuse would give victims a sense of confidence that there is a steady platform of social solidarity for them to step out onto when they leave their abusers behind. To be sure, we are far from indifferent to the plight of domestic-abuse victims in the United States — most Americans recoil with horror at the very thought of it. But we are too apathetic in practice, and we must do better.

If you are currently suffering domestic abuse or know or suspect that someone you know is, please call the National Domestic Abuse Helpline at 0808-2000-247.


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