With widespread lock-down measures to counteract the spread of COVID-19 infection, the possibility of the world under a radically changed order proved fascinating. Despite the suffering of the pandemic, were we getting glimpses of a better world? Unpolluted city vistas, newly clean rivers flowing and the (mythical) return of dolphins to Venice sparked hope.
Although the dolphins were probably in Sardinia, not Venice, the hope of longer-term benefits in the aftermath of the novel corona virus has been palpable. Could changes to patterns of consumption and travel persist and allow a better world order to prevail? Could realisation of the benefits of our collective ability to change pave the way to reversing climate change and rewilding our landscape? Could our ability to cooperate for the common good outlast the pandemic? Would the stark illustration of the need for universal and accessible education, health and social care persuade societies to remake the social contract?
Of course we need to believe that everything will be alright – especially when the going gets tough. But our (necessary) hopeful and even optimistic speculations must not block sight of the grimmer effects of the pandemic. For marginalised and disenfranchised groups, far from offering a new world order, the pandemic has entrenched vulnerability and amplified suffering.
Forced migrants fleeing violence and poverty are facing even greater risks under pandemic restrictions. The effects of the virus and the effects of the measures to counteract the virus have deepened the day to day difficulties of migrants with restricted access to healthcare, work and housing. And for those migrants – mostly women – who are also survivors of gender-based violence the difficulties can make life almost unbearable.
Increases in violence against women and children noted by helplines and statutory bodies have made the human cost of lockdown visible. These costs are hardest for women and children in the most vulnerable positions, including refugees.
Our fast-response research looked at the experiences of forced migrant survivors of sexual and gender based violence in the UK, Turkey, Tunisia, Sweden and Australia, based on interviews with 52 survivors and 45 service providers. Survivors of sexual violence described how lockdown restrictions exacerbated their existing vulnerabilities, leaving them at heightened risk of psycho-social problems, destitution and even further abuse.
In terms of employment, the pandemic restrictions meant that an already poor group of women no longer had access to informal employment, in turn exacerbating existing poverty. Access to formal support services and informal networks was restricted by social distancing, by lockdown and staff absences.
For example, a Nigerian woman, who had survived trafficking, and who was now living as an irregular migrant in Tunisia described how life had become ‘unbearably difficult’ with the arrival of the pandemic. The withdrawal of non-government organisations meant that the already inadequate support became even more scarce and the most minimal daily needs were almost impossible to find.
As support services moved online, migrant women did not necessarily have digital access. A Syrian woman who had survived war and intimate violence and was living in Ankara, felt abandoned when the pandemic arrived saying:
“Whenever I contact the charities, they tell me it is difficult to help me amid this crisis. I am just waiting for this to end so that they can help me. I feel that all the doors have been closed.”
Opportunities for women to escape intimate partner violence during a lockdown are dangerously limited: for women seeking refuge, who may be impoverished and not have networks of friends and family, the opportunities are even more limited.
When lockdown regulations were introduced in the UK, an allowance was included for domestic abuse survivors and their offspring to legally leave home despite lockdown having been imposed. Dominic Cummings (senior political advisor to Boris Johnson) justified his lockdown-defying travel as an ‘exceptional need for childcare’ – drawing on this allowance. While his lack of regret in the Downing Street rose garden has been much discussed, there has not been enough commentary on the abuse of privilege that Cummings’ use of this allowance implies. The terrible irony of a wealthy and well-connected man exploiting an allowance for the protection of victims of intimate partner violence to justify keeping his job has not been talked about nearly enough.
Women refugees subject to sexual and gender based violence have very few alternatives available to them, even before the pandemic arrived. A West African woman in her 40s, now living in the UK, explained how the pandemic conditions exacerbated existing difficulties:
“You know when you already have a problem and another comes on top, it makes the problem bigger – like when it’s just one problem, but if you already have all those under-lying things carrying this and that trauma, layers and layers of different things.”
Having fled violence and survived gender-based violence, women who find themselves living through a pandemic need support, regardless of their migration status. The tenacity of daring to hope for help, despite living through an accumulation of problems and amplification of suffering is remarkable. Tenacious hope for a better and safer life is an example that we should not only be supporting but also emulating.
The glimpsed possibility of progressive change that the pandemic has offered exists alongside the inequalities that it has reinforced. The opportunity to remake the world must include the most marginalised who have not been visible in mainstream pandemic reporting.