Domestic Violence and Coronavirus


Laura Brignone Bhagwat is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Berkeley where she studies technology and domestic violence.  Her dissertation tracks a public health intervention in hospital emergency rooms meant to prevent intimate partner homicide.

Imagine yourself scared. Maybe you’re scared for your life; you’re definitely scared for your health and wellbeing. You’re probably scared for those around you, and scared for what your future holds. Imagine yourself terrified to go to the doctor, unable to secure your financial wellbeing. It probably isn’t that hard to do, as we’re all living in the age of the coronavirus.

Now, imagine that this coronavirus-like being lives in your house.

Imagine that it sleeps in your bed. Imagine that you are trapped in a house together with it, unable to go to work, school, a friend’s, a movie, a park, or anywhere that would offer you a few moments of reprieve. 

Now imagine it has agency. And it has trained its sights on you.

This is the situation that survivors experiencing domestic violence and child abuse are facing right now. When everyone else is at least six feet away, no one can hear you scream. [1] 

* * *

Social distancing/quarantining create an ideal setting for abuse

Abuse is about taking away another person’s agency, exercising power and control over them, and bending them to your will. Social distancing and quarantining isolate the survivor and cut them off from sources of support [2]. Usually, the abuser has to work to isolate the survivor. Now that social distancing and quarantine already enforce this isolation, the survivor quickly becomes at the abuser’s mercy: 

The survivor has nowhere to go or hide. They can’t spend time at work/school or with friends or family; they can’t talk to anyone without their abuser knowing; they are constantly present for the abuser’s emotional, psychological, physical, and/or sexual assaults.  

The survivor has no external resources. Unable to leave their homes, the survivor is limited or unable to access any practical/safety, financial, social or emotional resources that would help them mitigate the effect of the abuse, whether from friends and family or formal organizations [3].

Nothing counters the abuser’s narrative. Abusers often manipulate survivors into thinking they are at fault, that the abuse isn’t real, or that the survivor is the one with a problem.  Gaslighting is common in abusive relationships. Without friends, family or other countervailing voices, survivors begin to wonder if the abuser is right, and the survivor did something to deserve the abuse.

COVID-19 hands the abuser a tool. As public and social services (hospitals, government entities, friend/church groups) prioritize COVID-19, abuse response will require resources these services simply don’t have available. Moreover, abusers can threaten survivors with exposure to COVID-19, or use COVID-19 “precautions” as a pretext to exercise further control. 

Social distancing/quarantining exacerbate abuse

This isn’t hard to understand. When we feel powerless in the face of the unknown, we often respond by upping our game over things we can control. My newsfeed is full of rigorous baking projects, homeschooling/enrichment schedules, and potty training initiatives. 

However, abusers exact their need for power and control by forcing it upon another person. Social distancing and quarantine trigger risk factors that increase the rate and severity of manipulation and violence in abusive relationships.

Unemployment worsens abuse. COVID-19 is leading to a rapid increase in unemployment, particularly in low-wage sectors that have higher rates of physical and fatal violence. COVID-19 has also initiated a period of economic turmoil that could lead to further unemployment. Abuser unemployment is one of the four greatest risk factors for intimate partner homicide. [4]

Social upheaval worsens abuse. Sweeping societal change and economic uncertainty lead to more domestic violence and child abuse. This was evident in the Great Recession, and is also visible in less stable/more violent communities and societies.

Family upheaval worsens abuse. Family crises (such as domestic violence, mental health concerns, dramatic changes to family structure and parental social isolation) increase the risk of child abuse. Domestic violence shelters anecdotally report similar upticks during times of familial stress. 

Domestic violence is happening now — we can help

This has already started. The wave of post-quarantine divorces in China has been well-publicized; less-so the tripling of domestic violence-related calls to local police. In the United States, calls to domestic violence advocates have already begun to spike. In this era of shortages, closed resources and loss of work, our public health measures should cultivate opportunities to support survivors of domestic violence and child abuse. 

Public health directives and guidelines can include phone- and internet-accessible resources for survivors in every publication (as Rachel’s excellent post did a few days ago). Schools can (and are) continuing to offer grab-and-go free and reduced lunches — some (though very few) are making school social workers and/or other teleheath resources available to high school students, as well.

But for the most vulnerable — those too scared, too young, too monitored, or too physically or otherwise restricted to reach out to formal services themselves — those of us in their informal support networks are critical. 

Survivors of domestic violence and child abuse reach out to friends, family, teachers, and other trusted acquaintances much more often than to formal sources of support like law enforcement, helathcare, or relevant non-profit/government agencies. How those confidantes respond can make the survivor feel empowered, seen, and heard, or it can make the survivor feel further isolated, disbelieved, and alone.

If someone suggests to you they are not feeling safe at home, believe them. Communicate your belief that the abuse is not their fault. Ask how you can help. They are the expert in their situation, and they know what assistance will actually help, and what will put them in greater danger. Ask if you can check in regularly, and how you can do so safely.

Offer to help them make a safety plan. Support them as they think through what will increase their safety at this time. The National Domestic Violence Hotline and RAINN have suggestions on how to start. As you help the survivor think through ideas, you can offer to be a support person on the other side. For example, if the survivor wants to make sure the abuser is socially connected (and thus likely to initiate slightly less abuse), you can help make that happen; if the survivor wants to make copies of important documents, you could offer to store them. 

Offer to do research into DV/child abuse resources in your area. Many local DV agencies, therapist offices, and others are offering remote services right now. If the survivor would like access to these resources, it may be safer for you to do this research. In addition, you can help them find remote medical care (particularly important in situations of physical abuse, sexual abuse or reproductive coercion).  You can help them access food.  You can help them access other resources they may find helpful, ranging from the banal (like Netflix shows to binge) to the lifesaving (like a check-in schedule to ensure they’re alive and/or don’t need you to call 911).

Lastly, don’t be afraid to reach out for help, yourself. Helping someone through domestic violence or child abuse can often leave you feeling burned out, sad, helpless, or unsure of what to do next. The National Domestic Violence Hotline can be a major resource in these circumstances. They offer confidential, 24/7 support to survivors of abuse and those trying to help them. They are connected with a wide variety of resources to help both survivors and helpers working through this difficult situation. 

Even the best public health choices tend to exact the heaviest toll on those who are already the most vulnerable. As God’s hands on earth, we can do our part to be aware of that burden and alleviate that suffering. Or, in the adapted words of my favorite hymn: 

Because my soul’s been sheltered, fed by thy good care,

I cannot see another’s lack and I not share

My glowing fire, my loaf of bread,

And a safe shelter overhead

That they, too, may be comforted.

* * *

[1] As used here, “domestic violence” includes intimate partner violence (what we usually think of with “domestic violence” — boyfriend, girlfriend, spouse, etc), elder abuse, vulnerable adult abuse, and coercive control between other immediate relatives or individuals living in the same household. 

[2] Social distancing and quarantining are essential to prevent the spread of COVID-19. I’m practicing them, and I encourage those who are able to do so as well. The purpose of this post is to highlight that survivors of domestic violence and child abuse may face more danger within their homes than from COVID-19. 

[3] For those who are able, there are exceptions to this rule! Many local and national services are online/text/phone-based and are expanding their reach right now. 

[4] According to internal data, per a personal conversation with the U.S. domestic violence homicide expert.

Cover photo by Chris Buckwald on Unsplash


  1. This is an incredibly important perspective and context to remember. Thank you for highlighting this.

  2. Thank you for sharing this. I work for a nonprofit in the DV arena and this couldn’t be more timely.

  3. Very important, thank you

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