As the coronavirus outbreak spreads across the globe, the biggest piece of advice coming from public health officials is to practice social distancing. Work from home. Avoid public transportation and crowds. Keep space between yourself and others and, if necessary self-isolate.
For some Americans, these measures are inconvenient but ultimately doable. But for others, such as victims of domestic violence for whom work is a necessary respite from the unpredictability of their partner’s abuse, there can be more immediate danger inside the home than outside it.
“Perpetrators of domestic violence commonly try to isolate victims and cut off their relationships with coworkers or friends or family,” said Allison Randall, vice president for policy and emerging issues for the National Network to End Domestic Violence. “Not being able to go to work and connect with your colleagues, it can certainly increase your vulnerability.”
In China, activists have reported a surge in domestic violence cases as millions of people have been under quarantine. Leta Hong Fincher, author of “Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China,” told HuffPost that she had heard from women’s rights activists that they’ve gotten significantly more pleas for help about domestic violence than they had received previously.
“During a time of extreme lockdown with the coronavirus, when people are not allowed to move around, it makes it exponentially more difficult for a victim of domestic violence in the home to go somewhere else,” she said.
“Coronavirus can lead to folks being trapped in abusive relationships, not because of the virus itself, but because of its economic impacts.”
Randall said she was especially concerned about the financial implications of the outbreak for domestic violence victims.
Many people have no access to paid sick leave. If they have to miss work, either because they are sick or they’re self-isolating or their job site has closed down, they will lose income and it will be harder for them to leave an abusive partner. The outbreak has already caused layoffs.
“Coronavirus can lead to folks being trapped in abusive relationships,” Randall said, “not because of the virus itself but because of its economic impacts.”
Research suggests that incidences of domestic violence rise after natural disasters, such as hurricanes. This is likely because perpetrators have increased access to their families and they can get away with the abuse more easily as support services break down.
After Hurricane Harvey hit Houston in 2017, for example, district attorneys reported an increase in both the number of domestic violence reports and their severity. Domestic violence murders spiked. A courthouse was destroyed in the storm, which meant victims could not seek emergency protective orders there. In some cases, victims and perpetrators ended up in the same emergency shelters and camps.
“Somebody who is not abusive is not going to suddenly become abusive,” Randall said. “But I worry about an increased incidence of domestic violence as people are stressed, and there’s less community support and accountability.”
Ruth Glenn, the president of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said she was worried that victims will avoid domestic violence shelters due to the social distancing recommendation, especially if they’ve never been to one and don’t know what to expect.
“Victims have to make a decision about not only safety but their well-being and health,” she said, adding that they may be unsure of the health and hygiene practices at shelters and concerned about sharing a communal space with strangers.
She urged victims to go to domestic violence shelters if they need support, noting that every program has an emergency plan that includes protocols to ensure safety for residents and clients.
“I would tell anyone that is considering whether they need to go to shelter that they should feel like it is safe,” she said.
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Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.