How the Pandemic Made Valentine's Day Dangerous | Opinion

Valentine's Day has long been regaled as a celebration of love—a time of cupids, hearts, chocolates and roses. But as we celebrate our second Valentine's Day in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, another insidious danger lurks, wreaking havoc on the lives of lovers everywhere. That threat is the "shadow pandemic" of intimate partner violence (IPV).

IPV, or domestic violence, includes emotional, physical, or sexual violence employed by a current or past intimate partner against their lover. Prior to the pandemic, the 2015 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey revealed that 43.6 million women and 37.3 million men in the U.S. reported experiences of rape, violence or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime.

In addition to injuries as a direct result of violence, IPV has been associated with many negative physical and mental health outcomes including cardiovascular disease, chronic pain, gastrointestinal issues, traumatic brain injuries, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicidal behaviors and alcohol and drug misuse.

Worse, survivors of IPV have higher rates of unmet health needs than those that have not experienced such violence. In addition to the human costs, IPV has real financial costs to society. Between 2010 and 2014, combined medical costs for IPV in the U.S. totaled $395 million. And these estimates were before the pandemic.

It was no surprise then when at the outset of the pandemic media reports and later empirical evidence revealed surges in IPV—particularly after the enactment of pandemic-related movement restrictions. Data from the Atlanta Police Department revealed increases in domestic violence—but not other crimes. While well intended, the public health measures designed to control the spread of COVID-19 effectively trapped survivors with their abusers creating isolating environments and exacerbating coercive control tactics. Our own research in Atlanta has found increased incidence of IPV in emergency rooms visits; other research has suggested increasing severity of IPV.

There is no doubt that in addition to movement restrictions, the context of the pandemic has also made relationships more dangerous. Unemployment increased, child care facilities and schools were closed, or offering virtual learning, adding to family stress. Existing disparities related to economic instability, unsafe housing, neighborhood violence and low social support worsened.

Roses and other flowers are seen
Roses and other flowers are seen in a refrigerated case. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

At the same time, the resources typically available to IPV survivors like courts and shelters were also struggling, leaving survivors even more vulnerable. In our work interviewing health care providers, we identified gaps in meeting the needs of survivors, findings that were reinforced though interviews with survivors themselves. These gaps included safe hospital discharge, housing, transportation and other immediate needs. Survivors described how the pandemic, including movement restrictions, amplified relationship issues by catalyzing the formation of new relationships; it also sparked new or intensified violence in existing relationships.

As the pandemic continues, understanding the effects of COVID-19 on IPV is critical to survivor's safety now and in the future. Gaps in services due to the pandemic must be mitigated, and planning for IPV surges is a necessary consideration for emergency preparedness planning. Relationship violence existed before the pandemic. COVID-19 made domestic violence more likely. That is why the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was originally passed in 1994.

After being reauthorized multiple times, the law lapsed Feb. 15, 2019—one day after Valentine's Day and a year before the onset of the pandemic. After months of negotiation, a bipartisan group of senators reached an agreement last week on the reauthorization of VAWA. The draft reauthorization includes provisions to strengthen violence prevention, education and funding. Even so, the current version fails to address the "boyfriend loophole," placing survivors at continued risk by allowing convicted abusers to buy firearms—a provision supported by the NRA and some GOP senators. This Valentine's Day, it is time for the U.S. Senate to listen to survivors, and show them the love and respect they deserve by reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act and closing the boyfriend loophole.

Kathryn Wyckoff is a master of public health candidate in the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University.

Dabney P. Evans, PhD, MPH, is an associate professor of global health in the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.