Health Justice Section Society

A Shadow Pandemic: the hidden COVID-19 Crisis

As the world goes into lockdown, we’re all urging each other to “stay home!” But for many of us, those two words incite unimaginable fear and dread. As domestic violence cases are expected to surge in this time, how will an already overstretched and underfunded domestic violence service industry handle it?

By Jill Tengco

Numbers in domestic violence incidents are expected to surge during COVID-19 isolation laws

Forced to spend hour after hour with one another, argument after argument had built up until she was left holding her 11-month-old daughter as the man she once loved began to beat her with a high chair. Lele, in her home in Anhui Province in eastern China, had no escape this March when her country went into lockdown from the coronavirus. Her husband had abused her throughout their relationship of 6 years, and the recent COVID-19 pandemic had made things much, much worse.

Experts had predicted, and with unfortunate accuracy, a spike in domestic violence incidents during this COVID-19 crisis. China’s domestic violence reports tripled in the wake of recent lockdown laws. Other countries are following suit and just as Australia was not safe with Coronavirus hitting our shores, we certainly are not safe from the increase in domestic abuse either.  During this pandemic we are being told that our home is where we will be the safest, but for every one in six women, and for every one in 16 men, home could be where the most danger lies.

A man lies to his partner, saying they have the coronavirus so they can’t leave the house. Another tells his partner he doesn’t believe in medication and forces her to wash her hands until they are red raw. Another refuses to let the children go back home after a contact visit, using social distancing as an excuse. I’ll lock you out of the house so you can go and get infected. If you don’t do what I say, I’ll go out and expose our children to the virus. These are the kind of reports NSW police are seeing. They are new and unique forms of terrible threats and coercion emerging from the pandemic.

In NSW alone numbers are soaring since the first confirmed coronavirus case. There has been a 75% increase in Google searches on domestic violence since the first recorded case of coronavirus, marking the highest in five years. There’s been a 30% increase in calls to Women’s Community Shelters NSW for information about what help is available. In a recent survey taken by Women’s Safety NSW, almost half of the frontline workers said there was an increase is pleas for help and 70% of workers said more than a third are reporting incidents relating specifically to the virus.

It’s a situation Rachael Natoli could not have imagined when she started her domestic violence not-for-profit, The Lokahi Foundation, 4 years ago. After leaving a long term domestic abuse relationship herself, she had been given a local case worker who had helped her through that crisis period and over the next two months in order to “get out and stay out”. The Foundation, based in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs, aims to support women with caseworkers for a minimum of 2 to 3 years rather than the usual 6 to 12 months. In doing so, Rachael wants to not only help women get out of toxic relationships, but “really help them move on with their lives and get back into the workplace. Really re-empower them so that they’re in control again”.

About Us - Domestic and Family Abuse Support | Eastern Suburbs
Rachael Natoli: founder of the Lokahi Foundation that aims to provide survivors with ongoing caseworker support. Photo: supplied by Rachael Natoli

Unfortunately, her aims are being set back in these precarious times. Everyone is under heightened stress over isolation, financial insecurity, and health concerns. When abusers feel powerless in uncontrollable situations like this, they seek ways to control their partner emotionally, psychologically and physically. And as people are required to stay home in order to stop the spread of COVID-19, perpetrators can more easily monitor their partners, leading to more abusive behaviour in the home that may already be riven with violence and coercion. As Rachael says, “there’s no escape from that perpetrator 24/7”. Unfortunately, we are already seeing mostly women, and the children who are now having to stay home from school, more vulnerable than ever as homes turn into pressure cookers for domestic and family violence.

All the while services are being disrupted. Those injured by their partner fear the risk of infection if they go to hospitals.  There is an overall lack of health services due to the focus on treating COVID-19 patients. While shelters and refuge admissions are seen as “essential services”, they have to abide by social distancing and not exposing more people to the virus.  Domestic violence services are forced to stop offering face-to-face contact for clients, moving to online or over-the-phone support. The already vulnerable are becoming harder to reach. The emotional and psychological distress among women and children in these situations, and even the frontline workers, is heightened.

Those vulnerable to domestic violence may find it difficult to seek help by leaving the house

The government has attempted to combat this, announcing a $150 million injection to boost programs under the existing National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and Children. This includes funding for counselling support and other programs and services for men, women and children affected by family violence. NSW will get $34 million which will mostly be used for emergency housing for clients.

The question is, is the government’s effort enough? For the Lokahi Foundation, Rachael says that while it’s good to see the government recognising and reacting to the crisis situation, the answer is no. “They are probably too focused on what’s happening right now and not necessarily looking at what’s coming afterwards,” Rachael says. “Yes, the women and children need that support now, they need the crisis accommodation to get out of those relationships or if one of them or their partner does happen to contract corona virus. But we also need to be looking into the longer term”. For Rachael, more funding needs to be put towards the case workers for an effective result even after this pandemic is over. “That’s when we can really make a difference to these women.”

Rachael says so many women go back to those abusive relationships because that is what they grow to know. “If everyone had somebody that could hold their hand and guide them to the different services and charities that exist, then they would be able to really move forward with their lives and not just get out, but stay out.”  

The Lokahi Foundation is one of the many smaller domestic violence charities under pressure at the moment. The Foundation was in the midst of employing their first caseworker when COVID-19 hit and had to put that on pause. This hints at the widespread difficulty that women will have to face during this time in accessing caseworkers to help deal with their circumstances. For now, the Foundation is focused on spreading awareness through the media that if they are, or know someone who is in an abusive relationship, that they, and many services, are still offering levels of support in the most careful way. “We would normally tell people ‘keep reaching out to us’ and let them know we’re there at this time” Rachael says. Despite not being able to reach out to the vulnerable in the same way as before, “it’s about them knowing that you’re there and you can help them”.

1800RESPECT, the national domestic violence counselling line will stay open 24/7.

Domestic violence services are doing all they can to ensure victim-survivors know “it’s business as usual”, according to Alison MacDonald, CEO of Domestic Violence Violence. There is still help available and planning for crisis-accommodation during this time is underway. 1800RESPECT is available 24/7 via phone or even webchat. Rachael says these frontline workers are doing a great job adapting to the circumstances, seeing the positive. “We’re lucky that we live in an age where we can support people via facetime, text message, email, telephone conversation,” she says. The difficulty comes from women being able to reach out safely. “That’s where we need to allow those women to make that decision themselves and trust that they are capable of choosing a time that they feel is safe for them”. Women are encouraged to download safety apps like Daisy which supports those experiencing abuse and connects them to local services) and Sunny (for women with disabilities who have experienced abuse).

During these times, services are also urging people to stay as connected as possible with their networks and the outside world to help avoid feeling isolated. The Lokahi Foundation’s volunteers in the eastern suburbs have taken on wider roles such as offering food packages to anyone struggling, whether in a domestic abuse relationship or not. “We just want everybody to know that we’re able to assist where we can”, she says. It is a pressing, but heart-warming time where people are organisations are doing all they can to make people feel safer and cared for in any way possible.

During this time, there are so many strains on the population that family violence could be forgotten. But now is when it needs the most attention. As systems and situations grow more precarious, victim-survivors like Lele and Rachael need not feel helpless and forgotten as services continue to provide the best possible help they can. Everyone has a right to be safe in their homes during this time especially, and no amount of stress, not even a global pandemic, will justify violence.