‘Pandemic within a pandemic’ : Intimate partner violence on the rise

Content warning: This article contains mention of domestic violence and intimate partner violence.

As the number of COVID-19 cases went up over the course of the pandemic, so too did the reported cases of domestic violence, also known as intimate partner violence (IPV).

A variety of different behaviours can be considered to be IPV. According to the Survey of Safety in Public and Private Spaces launched by Statistics Canada in 2018, IPV can include psychological, physical or sexual violence.

Experts have characterized rising IPV during the COVID-19 era as a “pandemic within a pandemic.” The Ubyssey sat down with resident experts on sexual behaviour and IPV to learn more about this trend and what living in a pandemic means for survivors.

IPV and stress

The COVID-19 pandemic restrictions left many Canadians stuck inside their homes. What followed was a spike in reports of IPV.

One CBC article reported that Canada’s Assaulted Women’s Helpline saw nearly a 65 per cent increase in reports of domestic violence from October 1 to December 31, 2020 compared to the year before. The article reported that calls to police regarding IPV-related incidents also went up.

Dr. Lori Brotto, a professor in the department of obstetrics and gynaecology at UBC, and Karen Mason, co-founder of the Supporting Survivors of Abuse and Brain Injury through Research (SOAR) project — an initiative between UBC Okanagan and Kelowna Women’s Shelter — both described the role that pandemic stress played in increased cases of IPV.

This is supported by one 2021 study in the Journal of Public Economics. Upon surveying 13,000 Spanish women, it was found that both lockdowns and economic stress due to the pandemic were associated with increased IPV. Similarly, a study done on an American sample saw that stressors related to COVID-19 were linked to an increased risk of experiencing IPV over the course of the pandemic.

Other publications have also explored how social factors intermingle with this “pandemic within a pandemic.”

A study published in the Council on Foreign Relations described the role social factors played in priming the spike in IPV, writing that “growing unemployment, increased anxiety and financial stress, and a scarcity of community resources set the stage for an exacerbated domestic violence crisis.”

Locked up in a crisis

Narrowing down how IPV reports changed over the pandemic is difficult due to the varied experiences of services across Canada. According to Statistics Canada, in the first few months into the pandemic, a majority of support services saw an increase in the number of "domestic violence" survivors who sought support, while a minority saw a decrease or no change.

In a perspective article published in The Journal of New England Medicine, the authors highlighted a study that described a more than 50 per cent drop in reports of IPV in the spring of 2020. However, the authors argued that this observation was not a sign for optimism. “Experts in the field knew that rates of IPV had not decreased, but rather that victims were unable to safely connect with services,” according to the article.

The increase in cases of IPV may be due to the victims being stuck at home with their abuser during the COVID-19 lockdowns, according to Mason. She also emphasized the role that the pandemic played in limiting access to crisis support, as social distancing disconnected victims from meeting with their support groups where “they may [have] been working on a safety plan to leave the relationship.”

For immediate crisis support, call toll-free service VictimLinkBC: 1-800-563-0808

To contact Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Office at UBC: 604-822-1588

To contact AMS Sexual Assault Support Centre at UBC: (604) 827-5180