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The Shadow Pandemic

Kuhoo Tiwari

Inarguably, the novel coronavirus pandemic hitting the world today is one of the most significant global crises yet in the 21st century. The pandemic affects not only public health, economic structures and jobs of individuals, but it has also permeated into every aspect of our life as we know it. In a desperate bid to stay healthy and provide protection from this virus, various measures have been implemented across the globe to encourage social distancing. This includes, but is not only limited to, closure of schools, businesses and factories; a complete prohibition of public gatherings; limitations on travel - both domestic and international and all other such methods that can be constituted as “the lockdown.” Adding to this are other physiological and psychological issues like isolation, loneliness and economic vulnerability. While in all parts of the world this ‘lockdown’ is being imposed with varying severity and degrees, the general advisory seen everywhere is that people stay at home and practice social distancing as much as they can, venturing out only for absolutely necessary needs such as buying groceries or medication, or if they need to fulfill an essential worker role.

In such an anxious time, the implementation of such stay at home orders is necessary for dealing with and mitigating one public health crisis - the global pandemic. However, such orders can lead to a catastrophic situation for some - being locked within a confined space with a violent or volatile perpetrator and little to no contact with the outside world. It becomes abundantly clear that as we resort to limiting ourselves within our homes, another global health crisis threatens to endanger many individuals - the unchecked rise of domestic violence.

In India, The National Commission for Women (NCW), which receives and records complaints of domestic violence from across the country, has seen a steep rise in gender-based violence against women in the national Coronavirus lockdown period. The total complaints from women rose from 116 in the first week of March (March 2-8), to 257 in the final week (March 23-April 1). The twofold rise in violence is extremely alarming, but this only represents populations or individuals privileged enough to reach out for help and it is only limited to cisgender, women complainants. Many individuals facing increased violence may not be able to avail such help and so the actual number remains unclear. In Europe, there is as much as a 60% increase in emergency calls by women subjected to violence as reported by WHO’s regional director for Europe, Hans Kluge. The UN agency for sexual and reproductive health (UNFPA) also estimated that there would be a steep rise of 31 million more cases of domestic violence worldwide if lockdowns continue for the rest of the year.

One of the major ways an abuser practices violence in a non-lockdown situation is by isolating the victim through an act known as ‘dislocation’. Isolation can be used to facilitate power over an individual and in domestic violence, by isolating the victim from family members and other support systems, the abuser can make the abused more dependent on them. It also allows little chance of rescue or escape. The lockdown amidst the pandemic becomes an absolutely crucial tool for the abuser as it leads to the ultimate isolation - no one is legally allowed to go outside.

In addition to having a situation that is conducive to an increase in violence, it is also extremely crucial to understand some of the reasons why this abuse might be occurring. Firstly, economic insecurity and poverty related stress exacerbated due to this lockdown have led to this stress being directed towards vulnerable individuals within the household. Though it is hard to define and draw a definite cause and effect relationship between the two factors, it is quite understandable that extreme and distressing stressors like unsteady financial security, loss of a job or a home and overall economic instability can lead to an increase in aggression and tensions and might result in some form of domestic violence.

Secondly, an absence or reduced capacity of social structures & key organizations has made it close to impossible to seek help in case violence is occurring. Hospitals, police stations and other civil society organizations like NGOs are overloaded with work and many are also functioning at a 33.33% capacity. It is near impossible to provide aid or intervention in such a situation. Moreover, being locked within the same house means a dramatic spike in perpetrator surveillance and hence reaching out for help becomes infeasible.

This crisis has been termed by the United Nations as a ‘shadow’ pandemic and it becomes extremely important to address it within our own communities. While official response might be at a staggered capacity, it is pertinent to do whatever you can within your own circles to address the myth of this ‘sanctity’ within homes and offer assistance to victims. Some ways to help:

  • Establish a code word with them in case they need immediate help but are unable to make it known due to perpetrator surveillance.

  • Set up a schedule to call them, this can make the abuser wary of the contact and may reduce danger. Random check-ins also make it known to the abuser that someone is aware of the behaviour.

  • Encourage the abused to document their abuse as it can be important if ever legal action is needed. This can be done through journaling or taking photos of evidence after the abuse has occurred.

  • In cases of extreme danger, get local authorities involved.

This constant and alarming rise of domestic violence is alarming, but it should encourage us to kickstart a much needed conversation and provide assistance to those who need it most. As the fight against COVID-19 rages on, may we also address this silent, but fatal pandemic.

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