Caring For the Vulnerable in a Crisis

By Jeanette Kwek

While governments are working hard to manage the immediate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, these efforts may inadvertently exacerbate existing vulnerabilities, or create new ones. For instance, as jurisdictions put social isolation measures in place, domestic violence is on the rise. The UN has described this as the “shadow pandemic”, and asked governments to include the prevention and redress of violence against women in their national response plans. In Singapore, family violence rose after the “circuit breaker” (local parlance for Singapore’s social isolation measures) started in early April. 476 reports were filed from 7 Apr to 6 May 2020, a 22% increase over the monthly average before the circuit breaker.

This rise in family violence may be rooted in several causes. First, the sense that their lives are out of control due to the pandemic may trigger some abusers to lash out against victims, in a bid to regain a sense of control and power over their situation. Second, social isolation separates victims from potential support systems. Lockdowns have allowed abusers to more easily isolate their victims, and prevent them from seeking help. Those at risk — spouses, children, parents — no longer have even the brief reprieve of school or work. Fear that they might expose their loved ones to the virus might also keep victims from turning to their support systems during this period. Finally, the economic uncertainty may make it more difficult for victims to leave abusive relationships at this time. With an economic recession looming, it would be more difficult for victims to establish financial independence, or find new living situations. To compound the problem, economic hardship tends to be a trigger for more violence, especially in relationships that were already abusive.

Technology may help mediate the situation. In the two-week period after the Netherlands instituted social isolation measures in mid-March, a Dutch help-line saw a surge in the number of children asking for advice on community forums and using its online chat tool to talk to experts. Courts in New York started issuing protection orders virtually, removing the need for victims to physically go to court to obtain protection from an abuser. New York City’s Mt Sinai hospital is doing Zoom therapy sessions. However, these digital innovations struggle with balancing the rights of the accused and the accuser. Judgements and monitoring have to be done over a video link, where outsiders can only see what the individual chooses to let them see. In other places, new safe spaces and code words provide new sources of protection to victims. In some European states, pharmacies and supermarkets have become safe spaces where victims can use code words to signal a request for protection. These retailers remained open through lockdowns, as shopping for essential goods was one of few accepted reasons for leaving the home.

Family violence is not the only problem. We may see rising levels of anxiety as the pandemic drags on. COVID-19 has heightened people’s awareness of uncertainty in their environment. Objects that were previously benign, such as lift buttons, have become potentially harmful. Individuals feel they have little control over their environment and infrastructure, which is often designed with connection and not COVID in mind. They also experience anxiety over their family members’ health, particularly if they have relatives who are high-risk.

With additional anxiety-related stress and the pressure of social isolation, people with pre-existing mental health conditions may be particularly at risk during this period. Others who may be negatively affected might be extroverted individuals whose social lives and leisure activities usually revolve around physical, face-to-face interactions. For seniors, lack of social connection and brain stimulation is associated with higher risks of health problems such as heart disease, dementia, and even premature death.

Once again, technology may be mediating some of these challenges. In the US, when digital platforms asked the elderly what they needed during the lockdown, seniors overwhelmingly asked for ways to stay engaged with the outside world. Web platform chats and “parties” allowed for continued (social) interaction, and may also strengthen emotional connections across extended families. New social infrastructure has emerged online. Bake- and cook-alongs on social media replace gatherings in communal kitchens, but also create new communities with shared interests. A memoir-writing club connected senior storytellers with millennials willing to record them, while other groups linked young and old for digital check-ins, which may seed ties that last beyond the pandemic.

Finally, the pandemic could be causing new vulnerabilities, or at least accelerating incipient fragility. For instance, those who are digitally illiterate or “analogue by choice”, particularly if they live alone, may find it difficult to manage prolonged lockdowns. For these individuals, especially the elderly, accomplishing daily tasks such as buying groceries may be challenging. Even as the digital generation becomes more proficient with online meetings and comfortable with online grocery shopping, there remain those who struggle with topping up pre-paid SIM cards for access to the outside world.

Individuals whose incomes are highly dependent on sustained social interaction, or based on variable components, could become suddenly vulnerable. Largely invisible prior to the crisis, these “formerly rich, suddenly poor” individuals’ incomes are dependent on commissions, hourly or performance-based rates. Tuition teachers, physiotherapists, real estate and insurance agents are among those who cannot work from home effectively, as their jobs require contact with customers to close sales or collaborate on the product. Yet they may not be eligible for existing relief schemes and social support.

As we continue to work on getting through and recovering from this pandemic period, it is worthwhile considering who else might need protection and a helping hand after the immediate threat recedes.

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Jeanette Kwek is Head at the Centre for Strategic Futures.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the Centre for Strategic Futures or any agency of the Government of Singapore.

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