Social Impacts of COVID-19

natasha stott despoja headshot bw

Natasha Stott Despoja AO
Chair, Our Watch

Almost two months ago, my trip to the UN was cut short due to the New York lockdown. As I flew home to Adelaide, and into 14 days in quarantine, I had a scarf around my face and used hand wipes to open the overhead locker.When I landed, the flight attendants touched my ticket (no gloves or sanitiser) and friends I bumped into went to greet me with hugs and kisses.

Having just seen social distancing in NY – workers in hospitality and on planes wearing gloves, train attendants wiping down seats and handshakes or personal contact banned at the UN – it was a shock to see how relaxed we were.

Of course, within days Australia reacted with similar caution and government regulation.

Our way of life has changed and the community is dealing with the difficulties of job losses, food shortages, self-isolation, stress and anxiety.

Some reflect on some positive changes to lifestyle: more time with family, fewer meetings, an appreciation of simpler things and a sense of community.

However, along with the economic and tragic health costs of this pandemic, there are other social issues, including an increase in domestic violence.

The cruel and unintended consequences of one antidote to the spread of this pandemic — the requirement to stay inside – is an increase in domestic violence.

As UN Women’s Anita Bhatia, says “The very technique we are using to protect people from the virus can perversely impact victims of domestic violence.”

Those of us coming to grips with being with our families – who we love and respect – for 24 hours a day can only imagine how it is for people who are scared for their lives and the welfare of their children. Confined in sometimes small spaces, tension can be exacerbated by financial stress, employment uncertainty and fewer distractions. Of course, these issues are not limited to house size or socioeconomic status.

While we know that home isolation and stress can intensify the underlying conditions that lead to violence, such as attitudes of disrespect for women, they do not cause it and they don’t excuse it. Not only is stress heightened, so is the proximity to abusers/perpetrators for those who are victims of family violence. In these circumstances, victims do not necessarily have space and access to support: it is hard to use a computer or phone privately if someone else is in the room.

The Commonwealth Government’s announcement of additional funding for helplines is welcome, as is their launch of a ‘bystander’ campaign.

We can all be good bystanders: neighbours, colleagues and friends can check up on those they are worried about. It is a time to report any concerns or suspicions, including altercations.

We are especially reminded of this after the tragic murder of Kim Murphy in Morphett Vale last month. Her calls for help were heard but not answered.

Funding for shelters, psycho-social and other support, requisitioned hotels or safe houses for people at risk, resources for law enforcement, even extending protection orders are part of the solution to these problems. But we still must address the long-term issues of the behaviour and attitudes that give rise to this violence in the first place.

We all ponder what kind of society will emerge when this pandemic curbs.

Surely our hope is for one that is kinder, more equal as well as healthy and safe.