Check on Your Friends: the Hidden Dangers of COVID

COVID-19 has dramatically shifted our abilities to travel freely about our daily business.  Families are stuck inside, sheltering-in-place, during a very difficult period.  As I am sure you have experienced, this can produce a new and persistent level of stress.  In addition, jobs have been lost, workplaces closed, and paychecks halted.  Despite economic stimulus checks (which would not even cover one month of rent in the San Francisco Bay Area), many are left desperately seeking funds.

It has become more apparent than ever that the vast majority of families in our country live paycheck-to-paycheck.  So when the paychecks stop, poverty strikes.  And for those already living in poverty or living with homelessness, poverty deepens.  Crisis support advocates who assist families dealing with interpersonal violence (domestic violence, sexual assault, child abuse, sexual, assault, and human trafficking), have noted the risk factors which spark violence.  Interpersonal violence does not discriminate; it happens in families of all colors, creeds, religions, political leanings, you name it.

Unfortunately, no isolated group in this country has been able to show us how to prevent (or end) interpersonal violence.  Among the various risk factors for different types of interpersonal violence is a common thread: poverty.  Limited funds can lead to domestic arguments which can lead to violence.  The stress-induced by poverty–the threat of eviction, lack of food, inability to care for loved ones—increases feelings of desperation and helplessness.  These feelings left unchecked can lead to acts of violence.  Today, in the COVID-19 new normal, interpersonal violence suffers are trapped in the home with their abusers, cut off from support and abilities to flee violence.

It has become harder and harder to reach out for help while being constantly monitored.  Many domestic violence and family shelters have shut down citing health and safety concerns.  Extended family members shunning visits to keep the virus away also limit options for escape.  And no one can see what is happening behind the closed doors.  The vast majority of child abuse and maltreatment reports are made by teachers and school personnel.  With kids out of school, reporting has dropped drastically.

Since teachers cannot be with their students, they cannot recognize the warning signs of abuse, and hence cannot sound the alarm for help.  On top of this, poverty puts tremendous stress on the family dynamic.  Families strapped for cash are families in dangerous crises.  And together, the close quarters of shelter-in-place and the weight of poverty create the perfect storm for interpersonal violence.  All of this is important to remember when assessing data collected on service calls for interpersonal violence during this COVID period.  While calls for help to crisis service agencies may have slowed, violence against partners, children, and elders has likely increased.

Calls for assistance cannot be correlated to the need for assistance when the act of placing a call for help poses a significant risk to the caller.  If anything, a dip in calls for help should signal that there is something wrong.  Victims are being silenced and are cut off from vital support networks.  At times like these, more—not less—resources must be funneled to address these emergency situations.

Interpersonal violence was a significant problem in the United States before the COIVD-19 Crisis (see https://ncadv.org/statistics).  The aggravation by this pandemic threatens to make matters much, much worse.  In fact, given that we do not have any idea just how badly COVID-19 will affect the economy given that we are in such a novel situation (or what other stress factors may weigh in to contribute to an already dire situation—like distress and outrage over George Floyd’s murder), it is impossible to say just how bad things could get.  But we do know that action must be taken, and it must be taken now, to protect the most vulnerable among us.

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