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The critical issue Congress must include in the next COVID-19 funding package

The critical issue Congress must include in the next COVID-19 funding package
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While areas of the country without stay-at-home orders are experiencing an increase in the number of COVID-19 cases, those with such orders are seeing an increase of another kind. Based on crime data, domestic violence rates across two dozen states have risen by as much as 30 percent.

Such reports are consistent with information from other countries battling the COVID-19 pandemic. One city in China reported a two-fold increase in cases of domestic violence in one month following movement restrictions; France and Brazil have seen an increase of over 30 percent since the arrival of COVID-19. 

The movement restrictions put in place as a result of COVID-19 are absolutely necessary to protect public health; measures such as shelter in place orders are working to “flatten the curve” and must continue before life can return to normal. Yet, these public health protections are also potentially harmful to people living with violence in their homes.  

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Violence in its myriad forms — child abuse and partner violence among them — is also a global pandemic. Before COVID-19, violence was among the leading causes of death globally with most cases being preventable. 

Together, COVID-19 and violence form a double pandemic which is why the next COVID-19 related federal funding package must dedicate funds to state and non-profit organizations that serve victims of violence.

The CARES Act was justifiably centered on providing economic relief to individuals and businesses; as the virus continues to wreak havoc on social, economic and health systems, the need to invest resources towards the secondary effects of the pandemic continue to mount. 

Under usual circumstances, economic stress, unemployment, depression, and social isolation are all risk factors for the use of violence against partners. As a result, one in three women experiences physical sexual or psychological violence during their lives. That was before unemployment surged to record heights and social distancing was — justifiably — recommended.

Likewise, one in seven American children have experienced abuse or neglect in the past year and over 2,500 children were trafficked inside of the U.S. That was before school closures.  

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Some might argue that we don’t know the impact of COVID-19 on violence. They are right. Most of the data we have at this stage are anecdotal. We need research into the specific effects of COVID-19 on child abuse, intimate partner violence and the commercial sexual exploitation of children. And Congress can designate funds to the National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for this purpose allowing researchers to systematically investigate the impacts of COVID-19 on these issues. 

Until then, we know how prevalent often these kinds of violence happened before COVID-19: too often. Not knowing exactly how the disease affects violence rates shouldn’t stop the action to prevent and respond to it in the meantime. We can be sure that these forms of violence are continuing, if not worsening. We know enough to act now. Individuals, family members, and friends can use the myPlan app to create a personalized safety plan; when Congress debates further relief in response to COVID-19, violence prevention and response must be among their considerations. 

Dabney P. Evans, Ph.D., MPH is an associate professor of Public Health at Emory University.