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COVID-19: The public health emergency and the disproportionately disadvantaged
The other pandemic: The impact of COVID-19 on violence against women
Ilana Rohwedder illuminates the impact the response to COVID-19 has on women and children at risk of violence, how frontline service providers are responding and what the government and the broader community can do to act, even, and especially, in times of crisis.
The emergence of COVID-19 has ushered in dramatic changes to the way frontline services across the not-for-profit sector are delivered. At Communicare, we have acted quickly to alter service provision for each of our 27 programs, prioritising consideration of risks to clients, staff, volunteers and community members. This includes not only risks associated with exposure to coronavirus, but also risks associated with service interruption for high-risk, vulnerable populations.
Crucially, women and children experiencing domestic violence sit at the forefront of our COVID-19 response planning. Our women’s refuge, Tuart House, provides emergency accommodation to women and children at risk of homelessness due to domestic violence; however, despite the spread of COVID-19, this is not a front from which we can pull back. We cannot switch to a phone or digital support model and we cannot merely refer elsewhere.
Concomitantly, our property is not designed to quarantine ill women and children. Our resourcing was not intended to respond to emergencies of this scale. As with many other service providers, we have undertaken risk assessments, developed contingency plans and applied mitigation strategies to maintain the safety of residents housed in close proximity with other families in crisis.
Delivering residential services has never been easy as the vestiges of violence manifest in complex traumas that service providers are often not sufficiently funded to address. In this period of a global pandemic and an unprecedented economic crash, staff continue to provide coverage 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, all with their own COVID-related fears and families to care for at home.
While we can remain steadfast in cultivating a safe place for the women and children in our care, our concerns are heightened for those still at risk of violence in our communities. With social distancing measures resulting in closures of work places, businesses and public spaces, many women and children are facing confinement at home for an undetermined length of time with their abuser. An abuser who, like everyone else, is dealing with the anxiety and uncertainty of the moment, facing stress and potential unemployment and critically, feeling a loss of control. This is a dangerous combination of conditions. Moreover, with some supportive outlets previously available now inaccessible, women and children are even more isolated and vulnerable.
The scale of risk of COVID-19 is assuredly significant, but we collectively should be aware that the measures we are putting in place in attempt to save lives may also be responsible for ending others. The Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre predicts Australia’s unemployment rate will reach 12.7 per cent by May 2021 with 1 million Australians losing their jobs by November 2020. Increases in unemployment are associated with numerous adverse social indicators including poverty, inequality, poorer physical and mental health and increases in mortality rates. It would certainly seem that our discomfort with death by COVID-19 is inconsistent with our comfort with death by poverty.
This is by no means an argument against the actions being taking to preserve the health and safety of people across Australia and elsewhere. Rather, this is a desire to see the urgency with which we have rallied to flatten the curve reflected in our commitments to those disproportionately experiencing safety risks in other domains. In the context of violence against women and children, public policy can strengthen supports in several ways.
Family and domestic violence services must remain deemed essential. This is supported by increases in the rates of domestic violence in Hubei Province where police reports in February tripled from figures the previous year. Such reports are echoed in France, USA and numerous other countries. Women and children at-risk will need continued access to services including helplines, counselling and emergency accommodation.
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