NEW YORK CITY: Last week a friend called me in tears. That morning she had asked her husband about a household expense. He exploded in rage, hitting her repeatedly and smashing her into the wall.
“What should I do?” she asked in a whisper, hiding in a room so he couldn’t hear. Nervously, she explained that her husband had been aggressive before, and she wanted to leave with her kids.
But she fears it would be impossible to flee during the COVID-19 lockdown — and thinks he will lose his (faltering) career in professional services if she reports him to the police, leaving the family with little income.
“Corona has trapped us in hell,” she declared, expressing despair that governments had imposed lockdowns without doing more to help vulnerable families.
CAGES OF TERROR
As I listened, I was overwhelmed with grief, not just for this particular family but also for the countless other adults and children now trapped in a cage of terror, stress and abuse.
Data from around the world suggest that the introduction of lockdowns has led to a rise in domestic abuse, with victims unable to avoid perpetrators.
In the UK, as my colleague Sebastian Payne reported this week, the charity Refuge says calls to its helpline have risen 49 per cent to about 400 a day.
Similar patterns have been reported in Europe, the US and many other countries, prompting UN Secretary-General António Guterres to urge “governments to put women’s safety first as they respond to the pandemic”.
Even in places where statistics seem to suggest that domestic violence cases are falling — in Los Angeles, for example, the police say reported cases were 18 per cent lower than a year ago between Mar 19 and Apr 15 — this is sparking concern, not relief.
Police fear that many victims — like my friend — feel too scared to even file a report, or are unable to find a safe way to do so.
“We’re having 10 fewer crime reports each day for instances of domestic violence,” the Los Angeles police department chief Michel Moore told local television. “That’s going in the wrong direction with what we believe is actually happening behind closed doors.”
ECONOMIC STRESS AND ISOLATION
For a minority of financially blessed and happy families, lockdown might seem almost akin to a creative holiday.
For most, however, it has unleashed profound stress due to economic pressures, bereavement, sickness — and the unfamiliar experience of being cooped up in small spaces, in many cases juggling kids and, if you are lucky enough, jobs.
In homes that are already prone to abuse, a COVID-19 lockdown creates a living nightmare. That is partly because of the all-too-obvious reason that it is hard to run away.
READ: Commentary: Isolated with your abuser? Why family violence seems to be on the rise during COVID-19 outbreak
But it is also due to a more subtle problem: The mental cage.
Abusers typically control their victims not just through physical violence but by making them think that abuse is justified, if not inevitable.
Sometimes they deliberately isolate victims from others, controlling their communications; other times they use emotional abuse to make the victim feel ashamed.
In an abusive situation, the abnormal gradually starts to seem normal as a wider perspective slides away, to a degree that detached outsiders can struggle to understand.
COVID-19 cruelly reinforces this. Today nothing seems entirely “normal”. Social distancing is required. Many people feel emotionally drained.
For abuse victims, it thus seems doubly hard to flee; breaking free requires extraordinary amounts of emotional and physical energy — not to mention money.
Can victims be helped? Yes. They need more ways to access support (my friend says she tried to call a government advice line for help, but was left on hold for so long she gave up).
There also need to be more routes for abuse victims to report problems without detection. One smart innovation in Spain’s Canary Islands, since copied in a number of countries, is for victims to use the code “Mask-19” at local pharmacies to discreetly signal their plight.
Empty hotels could and should be used for shelters, without judgement or cost. Governments should give financial assistance to people seeking to escape.
READ: Commentary: Lockdown and isolation sound simple – but keeping people at home is no easy answer
There is also a desperate need for subsidised therapy, not just now but in the future too; the trauma of domestic violence can last years.
There is another step we should all take: Watching out for each other. Right now, my friend plans to stay in her house (contrary to advice) since she feels too short of money to leave, wants to avoid disrupting her kids and thinks she can mitigate her husband’s rage. I hope so.
But she has promised to stay in close touch by text — and asked for her story to be told anonymously to “let people know what the lockdown has done” to families like hers, and to appeal for more government support.
“There is so much that is broken now. Can it heal?” she said sadly in a recent call. It is a question that untold others might now be asking too.