Imagine you are a woman who experiences intimate partner violence and because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, you must shelter-in-place with your abuser. Leaving your home puts you at risk of contracting a potentially deadly virus, but staying at home can be just as perilous. The stressors that many Americans are feeling right now—the anxiety, the economic uncertainty, the threat of unemployment, the pressure of homeschooling—threaten to boil over into violence in your home.

In this moment, as we all attempt to determine what “safety” looks like in the face of a global pandemic, one thing is certain: Victims of domestic violence are facing chaos in their homes and in the systems they turn to for help. Just as COVID-19 is shining a spotlight on the racial and socioeconomic disparities that have made Black, Latino, and Native American communities more vulnerable to the underlying health conditions that make the virus more deadly, it’s also revealing the degree to which women from these same communities are at increased risk for domestic violence.

There has been a spate of reporting connecting the pandemic to spikes in intimate partner violence. The novel coronavirus is leading to a “domestic violence crisis,” Axios reported—and this was to be expected. Research has consistently found that intimate partner violence increasesboth in prevalence and severity after disasters. The evidence outlined by Cosmopolitan is overwhelming: “Following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, people impacted were twice as likely to experience abuse. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, physical violence against women doubled. After Hurricane Harvey hit Texas in 2017, the number of strangulations by July 2018 had already surpassed the previous yearly total. And it’s happening now: In China, where COVID-19 was first detected, activists reported that domestic violence surged during the epidemic.”

Prism spoke to advocates in New York City, Indian Country, and New Orleans who work with immigrants and low-income people of color, Native American people, and Black families to learn more about the conditions survivors are facing as their larger communities are overrun with COVID-19 cases.

Potential Fatalities

New York City is the COVID-19 epicenter in the U.S., with low-income communities of color and immigrant communities being ravaged by the disease. These are the populations that Maribel Martinez-Gunter works with most closely. She told Prism that when New York City closed down its schools, it was a “turning point” at her legal aid organization, Legal Services New York, where she is the director of the family law and immigration unit.

“Once children are put in the situation of homeschooling, that exacerbates the situation if there is already tension in the home,” Martinez-Gunter said. “During this time, we anticipate spikes in child abuse and mistreatment, domestic violence, rape, and other kinds of traumatic, invasive crimes, most of which will go unreported.”

For advocates working with survivors during this unprecedented upheaval in American life, there is a horrific calculation that must take place in order to figure out how best to help a family. Any situation that was occurring before COVID-19 “is now multiplying,” Martinez-Gunter said, and she and her colleagues have to “anticipate fatalities” by taking a family’s stressors into account: Was there prior abuse in the home? Are there substance dependency issues in the home? What are the economic stressors—are people unemployed, did they lose their job as a result of the pandemic, or have they become “essential workers” overnight? Is there a technological divide, making parents feel like they can’t support their children who have shifted to online learning?

There are already documented incidents of abusive partners using the novel coronavirus to exert power and control over their partners. In a call to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, a woman told a representative that her husband wouldn’t let her leave the house. He was experiencing flu-like symptoms and claimed he wanted his wife to stay in the house so as not to infect others. “But I feel like it’s just an attempt to isolate me,” the woman told the hotline.

Martinez Gunter said that for victims of domestic violence, the pandemic is forcing “really complex issues” to play out simultaneously.

“Prior to COVID, there were elements of these power and control dynamics, even if it didn’t rise to the level of domestic violence. But now in the face of a pandemic, homes can become ripe grounds for physical incidents that can lead to fatality. It’s a sobering and concerning time. We’re very concerned for our clients,” Martinez-Gunter said.

Compounding matters further, advocates like Martinez-Gunter can no longer access their clients in the usual ways. The offices for legal aid organizations, including Legal Services New York, are closed, and the courts are gutted, with emergency issues like orders of protection and child welfare proceedings being handled virtually. Forms for these issues are now to be electronically submitted. This is a hard process even with an attorney, Martinez-Gunter said, but now it’s a “nightmare scenario” where survivors who may not be tech savvy must work through submitting these forms online without any help.

Even when advocates can work with their clients, survivors may feel like they have few choices. Victims of intimate partner violence often go out of their way to protect their abuser. Whether it’s because they love them, financially rely on them, or fear the ramifications, Martinez-Gunter said survivors often do not want to see their abusive partners go to jail or get detained. Historically, Martinez-Gunter said, the domestic violence movement encouraged survivors to seek out assistance through the criminal justice system. In the immigrant and communities of color Martinez-Gunter works with, there is an inherent distrust of law enforcement, so there is a concerted effort to avoid calling the police. Before the pandemic, Martinez-Gunter and her colleagues could funnel their clients through a civil system that didn’t create a criminal record, but that system has been decimated due to the novel coronavirus. Survivors who have to navigate this tricky system online may have to have a virtual hearing with a judge, ostensibly while being confined in close quarters with their abuser.

“The system is up and functioning, but it’s harder to maneuver. No one planned for this. The family court system is doing the best it can, but as they’re figuring out, people are really suffering,” Martinez-Gunter said. “The criminal justice system may be more of an option for people right now, but it’s not what they want. None of this is ideal.”

‘More chaos’

In Indian Country, conditions for survivors are even more untenable. During the pandemic, tribal court systems are deciding which services are essential to migrate online, which may exclude services for survivors. Even if the services did exist online, many Native American communities are without reliable internet.

Elizabeth Carr is senior Native affairs policy advisor for StrongHearts Native Helpline, which offers free culturally appropriate support and resources to Native American victims and families. All of the advocates that work at the organization are Native American and understand the complexities and nuances of offering support to survivors in Indian Country. Carr told Prism that in Native communities, isolation and lack of shelter already exist, and programs for survivors have always been underfunded and underserved.

“This pandemic will just create more chaos,” Carr said, noting that Native Americans also experience some of the highest health care disparities and rates of poverty in the nation. These conditions mean Native communities are primed to be the hardest hit by the global pandemic, and the stressors associated with these conditions have the potential to boil over into intimate partner violence.

While some Native communities are already in the grip of the novel coronavirus, the Native communities in StrongHearts’s immediate area of Eagan, Minnesota, have yet to see the full effect of the pandemic. But Carr is deeply concerned.

“From a public health standpoint, we’re poised to be hard hit. Some areas are very rural and don’t have access to ventilators. Some people don’t have running water, so they can’t even wash their hands,” Carr said. “Safety and health are already such a big challenge, but when you add this really stressful situation unfolding now where people have to be in isolation with their abuser, we anticipate seeing more incidents of domestic violence. Everything that is happening drives more hostile environments. It’s like a double whammy.”

As conditions for the pandemic worsened in the U.S., StrongHearts saw a decrease in the number of calls it received. This is likely because victims are unable to make phone calls while being sequestered with their abuser. When victims are able to make a call to the hotline, Carr said StrongHearts advocates are helping to create safety plans with callers. For those who can access it, there is also culturally appropriate information online. StrongHearts’ partner organization, the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, is continually updating resources for domestic violence survivors and advocates, which include a new Guidance for Tribal Programs in response to COVID-19.

Community and countrywide trauma

For Carly Smith of the New Orleans Family Justice Center, one of the “most terrifying” things about the way the pandemic is unfolding is the “complete breakdown of basic services” in ways reminiscent of Hurricane Katrina. In New Orleans, just like in the rest of the country, coronavirus testing is still rare and infrequent at best, even for people experiencing what are now considered classic COVID-19 symptoms. Nationwide, health care workers are being asked to work in unsafe conditions as their hospitals run out of personal protective equipment. Many states are still weeks away from hitting their peak in COVID-19 cases but are already running out of bed space, ventilators, and medications. This moment is triggering for abuse survivors nationwide who have post-traumatic stress disorder, Smith said, and this is particularly true in New Orleans where there are untold numbers of women who have survived intimate partner violence and Hurricane Katrina. Right now, the Family Justice Center is doing its best to “hold space” for domestic violence and Katrina survivors who are in need of crisis counseling.

As the organization’s director of client services, Smith said domestic violence shelters are shuttering during the pandemic or drastically limiting the number of people they accept in order to adhere to social distancing rules, so hotlines and online resources can be particularly valuable. In New Orleans, where the novel coronavirus outbreak has become one of the most explosive in the country, the Family Justice Center is better positioned than most to help survivors.

The organization has both a hotline and a “skeleton crew” operating out of its Loyola Avenue center, where apartments act as shelter for survivors and their children. Should the need arise for more space, the organization’s state coalition provided funds so that survivors can be placed in hotel rooms. This is crucial given that a large percentage of the organization’s clients either live below the poverty line or are unhoused or housing unstable. Advocates also believe that homelessness may explode in New Orleans now that the restaurant and tourism industries have been decimated by the pandemic, potentially leaving more than 30,000 people unemployed.  

“There is all of this community-wide trauma and what is happening with the coronavirus is bringing a lot of that up. Just like with Hurricane Katrina, a lot of populations that are already vulnerable are being hit hard by the pandemic and it feels overwhelming to people,” Smith said.

A similar dynamic is unfolding nationwide. The racism and anti-Indigeneity that Black, Latino, and Native communities experience has made them more vulnerable to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Their widespread disenfranchisement, housing disparities, and health care and income gaps have set them up for far-reaching harm—and the pandemic is laying bare every crack in the system.

“This is the height of stress and the amount of trauma that is being triggered and compounded right now is just staggering,” Martinez-Gunter said. “And the isolation people must endure right now can mirror the abuse that they have endured in their life. Isolation is a common tactic by abusers, and this social distancing and quarantining can feel like that all over again. People are weighing the amount of risk they can take with abusive partners and with potential exposure to the virus. We don’t want people to feel hopeless, but this is a really rough time.”

Tina Vásquez is the editor-at-large at Prism. She covers gender justice, workers' rights, and immigration. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.