COVID-19 was declared a pandemic on March 11, 2020. In the following months, a significant number of countries went into “lockdowns” at one point or another for different periods of time, where urban and sub-urban populations were ordered by the government to remain home unless for essential functions or jobs. Viewed as a public health measure to prevent the rapid spread of infection, it also created a major change in the lifestyles and circumstances of many people. Rates of domestic violence increased significantly as new cases emerged due to the emotional tensions of the pandemic, while those cases where it had already existed, the victims themselves trapped by the lockdowns. This paper explores the impact of the COVID-19 lockdowns on causation of domestic conflict, the circumstances faced by the victims, further impact on this population, and the sociological theories involved.
At one point in the spring of 2020, approximately 3.9 billion people worldwide were placed under some concept of lockdown or restriction (Davie, Guenfoud). This forced individuals to remain home, usually needing to have a valid reason to go outside or into public areas. A combination of factors such as dealing with change, death (either personal affected or general awareness), feelings of being trapped, and frustration of monotony (and for some a lack of personal boundaries), among many others led to many people to experience strong negative emotions and mental health issues. While that is a concern on its own, both quantitative and anecdotal evidence suggested that prolonged lockdowns had led to increased conflicts between cohabitants in households. Those who felt threatened or were actually victimized had little choice but to remain within the same residence as the abuser, often perpetuating the cycle of domestic violence and abuse (Bradbury‐Jones and Isham, 2020).
As data began to emerge, many experts and health organizations labelled this phenomenon a ‘shadow pandemic.’ Domestic abuse and violence, which most often occurs against women and children, is considered a public health, gender equality, and human rights issue (World Health Organization, 2021). Advocates and national health organizations in multiple countries have indicated a dramatic increase of domestic abuse incidents and use of related services. Experts emphasized the connection between the lockdowns and this trend, as victims have been forced to stay at home with potential abusers, unable to seek help as openly since others in society, both people and public services were heavily preoccupied with the consequential disruptions of the pandemic.
The deputy executive director of UN Women noted, “It provided institutional cover for people not being able to leave the house. And so it just was, if you will, the perfect set of circumstances for a perpetrator of abuse” (Davies, Guenfoud, & Jovanovic, 2021). The heavy restrictions on movement allowed abusers to have greater opportunities to exert control, combined with the economic crisis which potentially limited financial options for victims to leave independently. Meanwhile, only 1 in 8 countries approximately had measures in place to protect victims of abuse, and the majority of cases that were made known had to be resolved through specialized charity organizations, such as the British Charity Refuge in the U.K.
Prior to the outbreak of the pandemic, nearly 1 in 3 women globally had experienced physical or sexual violence, most commonly by an intimate partner. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, these statistics have intensified. UN Women (n.d.) estimates that 243 million women and girls aged 15-49 have experienced domestic abuse and violence with an intimate partner annually during the pandemic lockdowns. According to studies conducted amidst the lockdowns, domestic violence increased between 25-33 percent globally, and this is only including known calls and cases. Unreported cases can be anywhere from an additional 5-15% on top of this statistic (Boserup, McKenney & Elkbuli, 2020). Similar numbers were reported in Ireland, as the number of people charged with domestic violence-associated crimes rose by almost 25% in 2020 to 7,600, with a total of 43,000 calls made to helplines, an increase of 16% from the previous year (Lally, 2021).
Domestic and intimate partner violence is a long-studied topic by health professionals, social workers, and sociologists. Various theories exist to explain this devastating phenomenon, and the pandemic inherently did not change much but simply create more circumstances where these theories could come into play resulting in increased domestic violence incidents.
The well-known systems theory has been applied to domestic violence by many researchers. It suggests that family conflict is the norm and starting point for most households, regardless of individual or family pathology. In turn, systems respond to feedback from interactions within the family system, positive feedback increases violence, while negative feedback decreases it. Systems theory emphasises that social units such as a family or household are complex interrelated networks of mutually causal elements with stable patterns of relationships (Sweet, 2019). Therefore, a linear causality approach would not be appropriate in defining domestic violence social behaviour, but rather it is a complex causality of multiple problems. Therefore, the systems theory goes beyond individual characteristics but focuses on the multifaceted family structure and dynamics (socialization, stress levels, time spent together, etc.) which could impact potential violence in the system (Lawson, 2012). Given that the pandemic fundamentally shifted the dynamics of interaction and family structure by placing people within the same enclosed space for virtually weeks, it can be explained by the systems theory why such a rising number of domestic violence cases emerged.
The exchange/social control theory, also known as the benefit perspective, has also been used. In simple terms, it suggests that domestic violence occurs when the rewards of violent behaviour outweigh the potential risks. It occurs in cases where there is an absence of social control that would bond individuals to the social order that typically punishes acts of violence. The theory suggests that violence will prevail when rewards (emotional gratification, feelings of control, glorification of masculinity and violence) outweigh costs. The lack of social controls decreases, as was evident during the pandemic when services were difficult to access. Finally, the last criterion is that when family structures increase the rewards, such as economic disbalance, significant gender inequality as practiced in some cultures, strong privacy of the household from outside insights (Lawson, 2012). Based on this theory, to reduce violence, rewards should be decreased while costs strongly increased to defer behaviour.
There are significant societal impacts to domestic violence, making this more than a matter of private conflict but a social issue. There is the economic cost, as domestic violence creates significant emotional pain and trauma. Direct healthcare costs are in the billions from immediate and chronic illnesses that arise in addition to lost productivity costs from injuries and premature death, with domestic violence being the leading cause of injury among women ages 18-44. There is often the impact of domestic violence on children, either directly or as ‘collateral damage,’ causing immense harm to their psychological state as witnesses of abuse, with mental health issues continuing into adulthood while also creating a perpetuating cycle, as victims of abuse many times become abusers themselves in some form (Liu et al., 2018). Finally, there is the overall risk to communities. Bystanders and law enforcement can also be affected or injured by domestic abuse, while an increase of such cases places a strain (both financial and practical) on the police and criminal justice systems, taking vital resources away from more severe crimes (ILCADV, n.d.).
Healthcare providers and social workers play a critical role in finding solutions and resolving the problem, at the very least on an individual level. The risk of intimate partner violence is underreported and underdiagnosed by health providers. Even if the issue is recognized, victims do not get the necessary help or support, because a majority of healthcare workers are unfamiliar with the policies and resources available to help them in aiding the patient in such situations. It is important to note that the pandemic also aggravated risk factors such as drug and alcohol abuse, economic stress, depression, psychiatric illnesses, and other destabilizing factors which then lead to expressions of domestic violence (Newman, 2021). Those working with people such as healthcare workers, social workers/therapists, police need to recognise risk factors and if necessary, investigate further and offer resources to victims to escape the situation in a safe manner.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, domestic violence rose exponentially due to imposed lockdowns and restrictions. Vulnerable populations which are victims of domestic violence or abuse, most often women and children faced significant threat and burdens. Experts have described several causal factors to this increase of cases, supported by sociological theory which included but not limited to forced living and isolation with potential abusers, lack of social support systems, financial or health security, and closed-off environments inside the privacy of households that offered little outside insight into existing family dynamics. The consequences of the ’shadow pandemic’ are only now becoming apparent, and they are dire for the affected populations. As a public health problem, the events of the pandemic should emphasise the need for social change and appropriate support and prevention systems to be in place to reduce incidents of domestic violence.
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