Some of the key policies to curtail the widespread transmission of the coronavirus or Covid-19 are city-lockdowns and self-isolation. The Thai government has been urging people to stay at home and shut down places for mass gatherings, including schools and childcare centres, since March 22.
In effect, everyone is forced to stay at home for a period of 40 days. There's the real possibility that period will be extended if the situation does not improve sufficiently by the end of April. For some people, staying at home may help protect them from the virus, but at the same time it exposes them to serious risks of domestic violence.
The United Nation's Children Fund or Unicef revealed in a report last month that violence and exploitation against children tended to rise during public health emergencies. For example, during the outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa from 2014 to 2016, there was a substantial increase in cases related to child labour, neglect, sexual abuse and teenage pregnancies. In Sierra Leone, there were around 14,000 cases of teenage pregnancies, which was more than double the rate for the period before the Ebola outbreak.
Many countries around the world have reported an increase in the number of calls to hotlines supporting domestic violence victims. In a town in Hubei, China, the first country which introduced a lockdown policy, the number of domestic violence reports received by police had increased three times compared to the same time period last year. According to a CNN report, the rise in the number of domestic violence hotline calls can also be seen across the US. For example, a 10% increase was registered in New York's Nassau country and a 30% spike was witnessed in Cincinnati, Ohio. Similarly, in March the Guardian reported that only a few days after the introduction of Spain's lockdown policy, the number of hotline calls in Catalan rose 20%.
In the case of Thailand, the number of domestic violence cases received by the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security's hotline 1300 in March 2020 was actually lower than March 2019 -- 103 cases compared to 155. But the decline in the number of calls for help does not mean that there have been less domestic violence incidents. Rather, it only indicates the decrease in reporting. This might be partly due to the fact that, in normal circumstances, domestic violence cases are often reported by outsiders such as teachers and friends who notice signs of abuse. As children, women, and other vulnerable groups are forced to quarantine themselves in their homes, the chance to call for help becomes less likely as the abusers might prevent them from reaching out.
Furthermore, the Covid-19 pandemic might reduce access to necessary services. For survivors of domestic violence, hospital visits are usually a must in order to get treatment and collect evidence of abuse. But the current outbreak has not only driven healthcare facilities to their limits, but also discouraged people from visiting them for fear of infection. Shelters for children and families, which were usually full even before the pandemic struck, may not be able to take more cases as they also need to prevent infection within their facilities.
An annual report of Thailand's Ministry of Social Development and Human Security looked back at the severe flooding in 2011, which resulted in 65 of Thailand's 76 provinces becoming disaster zones and many people being locked down in their homes. That report found that the number of domestic violence cases saw a spike, increasing from 943 in 2010 to 1,075 in 2011, before declining to 901 in 2012 and 881 in 2013.
Considering that the confinement measure started around the last week of March, the number of domestic violence cases in Thailand could be expected to increase this month as people are likely to became more weary and stressed from the social and economic effects of the pandemic. Apart from providing assistance in 103 domestic violence incidents, mostly in the form of referrals to responsible parties such as the police, shelters, and hospitals, the 1300 hotline also provided counselling service in 104 domestic abuse cases in March. More help will be needed in the days ahead.
The government can step up its efforts to prevent domestic violence during the current pandemic by introducing at least two measures. To start with, increased awareness is needed for all support channels in every form, ranging from hotlines, websites and chatrooms to addresses for anonymous complaint letters run both by the state and NGOs. Options and anonymity are important for survivors who are at risk of retaliation for reporting their abusers, especially if they are forced to stay in the same house during this lockdown period. Next, the government can ask hotels and hostels which are vacant due to the halt in tourism to become emergency shelters for survivors of domestic violence, or those who are at risk on account of past abuse and exploitation.
There is no doubt that lockdown and self-isolation measures are key responses to tackle Covid-19. But without supplementary measures to properly address domestic violence during this period, the future social cost, including physical and mental health treatment due to alcohol and substance abuse, as well as the vicious circle of violence, as past abuse victims themselves grow to become abusers, may be higher than the damage caused by this pandemic.