Around the globe, nations continue to navigate the aftermath of Covid-19. Global restrictions and now vaccines may have slowed transmission of the deadly disease, but the mass effort to protect public health put economies, businesses and vulnerable families at further risk of harm. Those suffering from domestic abuse have been put into a precarious situation, made worse by being imprisoned with their abuser.
Whilst alcohol is rarely the sole trigger, it is a powerful driver and can compound an abusive partner’s pre-existing behaviour patterns. By making it more difficult to drink in bars or restaurants, the COVID-19 pandemic pushed alcohol consumption into residential settings – producing a riskier environment for families already suffering from anxiety, strained finances and quarantine claustrophobia. At Vardags we have seen that Covid-19 has had a significant toll on relationships, with many couples unable to weather the storm, and more victims unable to find shelter from their partners’ abuse – the extent and consequences of which are exacerbated by alcohol. With increasing demand for legal support over ‘peak’, alcohol-heavy periods and the lingering ‘storm cloud’ of Covid-19 yet to clear, it is likely that more people are going to need assistance in relation to domestic abuse.
As governments battled the spread of Covid-19 worldwide, movement restrictions affected the severity of domestic violence. Although crucial for containing the virus, drastic alterations to living, working and schooling patterns brought disruptive psychological, social – and violent - consequences. This ‘quarantine paradox’ has been attributed to a surge in cases of domestic abuse by exacerbating relationship stressors, shattering social infrastructures and compounding existing vulnerabilities.
Research identifies social isolation as one of the most prominent tactics used to distance victims of domestic violence from support networks. With social isolation a government-sanctioned approach and overwhelmed support services less accessible than before, cases of domestic violence looked set to surge. Moreover, domestic violence – like divorce - surges whenever families spend extended periods of time together, such as Christmas and summer holidays.
Moreover, economic downturns impact on domestic violence. Whilst predominantly attributed to a lack of financial independence preventing women from leaving abusive relationships, economic uncertainty and tight budgets exacerbate relationship tension and abuse. Coupled with economic uncertainty, extensive furloughs and job losses, the ‘quarantine paradox’ provides an enabling environment for family conflict. Covid-19 therefore had potential to evolve into a new mechanism of coercive control as perpetrators exploited social isolation, financial insecurity, and threat of infection to deprive victims of independence.
Indeed, DV soared over lockdown; the national domestic abuse hotline, Refuge, saw a 25% increase in calls as March stay at home measures trapped victims indoors with perpetrators and inflamed pre-existing patterns of abuse.
During 2019-2020, at Vardags we saw the highest proportion of domestic abuse enquiries logged in April 2020 – the month after lockdown took effect. Here, domestic abuse made up 20% of total enquiries –the highest domestic abuse enquiries figure recorded across the entire two-year period.
Isolation, anxiety and stress can leave certain individuals increasingly reliant on coping mechanisms. By reducing the body’s stress response and emotional memory, alcohol has proved a common solace to remedy negative feelings, and an extensive literature documents alcohol use amid stressful life events at both the micro level (such as divorce and unemployment) and macro level (for example, natural disasters and economic recessions). Importantly, this correlation extends to virus out-break – with Hong Kong and China reporting a marked increase in alcohol consumption due to SARS in 2003. As the UK plunged into its first lockdown last year, domestic ‘bubbling’ and economic down-turn exacerbated psychological and financial weaknesses, with healthy behaviours becoming less of a priority for those worst affected.
The link between Covid-19 and alcohol use has been widely proven; in the three weeks preceding lockdown, supermarket sales of alcohol rocketed by £160m compared with the same period the previous year. As pub doors shut, domestic alcohol sales start to rocket, with alcohol becoming a stockpiling ‘essential’ for many panic-buyers; in the week ending 21 March 2020, UK alcohol sales were up 67%. For many, the key remedy for anxiety, boredom and containment was the key to the drinks cabinet.
Data from a consumer purchasing panel shows that between 2019 and 2020 (before and during the pandemic), off-trade volume sales increased by 25% between 2019 and 2020. The largest relative increases were seen for beer (+31.2%) – a probable reflection of the pub favourite’s shift from on- to off-trade consumption. Whilst the spike for December 2019 distorts the picture somewhat (owing to Christmas splurges), the mid-lockdown spike at Christmas 2020 is larger. Similarly, January 2020 shows decreases in off-trade volume sales (beer sales fall to c.15,000l/week on 5 Jan) - in line with seasonal ‘drying up’. However, sales in January 2021 decreased to a lesser extent (beer only falling to c.22,000l), as Boris tightened the chains of lockdown number three. This suggests Covid-19 had a marked impact on alcohol consumption which ‘overrode’ seasonal fluctuations.
This data supports surveys measuring self-reported alcohol consumption, which point to an increase over the lockdown period. Graph displays results from the Global Drug Survey’s Special Edition COVID-19 report, conducted to understand the impact of the pandemic with a specific focus on the use of alcohol and other drugs, mental health and relationships. Over 55,000 people took part in the seven-week survey, running from May-June 2020.
Almost half (48%) of survey respondents said they had increased the amount of alcohol they drank during the pandemic with just over a quarter (27%) reducing their intake and another quarter (26%) drinking at the same level as before.
Public Health data shows heavy drinkers were most likely to increase consumption during the pandemic:
Between March 2020 and March 2021, there was a 58.6% increase in the proportion of respondents drinking at increasing risk and higher risk levels.
There was a step-change around the time social distancing measures were implemented; the largest short-term increase was between February and April 2020, where the prevalence of risky drinking rose from 10.8% to 19.4% (equating to 79.6% more people drinking at higher levels).
Therefore, partners who already had an alcohol problem were likely to retreat further into their bottles over lockdown – and possibly drag their other side into the dangerous drinking game. Alcohol was becoming a destructive, rather than remedial, lockdown ‘lift’.
Furthermore, using alcohol to counteract ‘lockdown lows’ is dangerous. By disrupting delicate nerve-chemical processes and reducing inhibitions, alcohol can trigger impulsive behaviour and leave users less capable of negotiating a non-violent resolution to conflicts. Moreover, excessive drinking can exacerbate financial difficulties, childcare problems, infidelity and other stressors within intimate relationships – increasing the likelihood and severity of tension. Nor should it be forgotten that experiencing tension and/or violence within a relationship can lead to alcohol consumption as a method of coping - creating a risky circle of alcohol use and violence. Blending social and physical restrictions and money worries with increasing alcohol consumption therefore provided a toxic cocktail for potential domestic abuse.
Although the link between alcohol and domestic violence is complex and alcohol is rarely the root cause, research shows a strong correlation between consumption and abuse:
Alcohol has been found to feature in 68.2% of domestic incidents, with some studies reporting figures as high as 73%.
Research with police in the North-East of England found 93% of officers regarding alcohol as having a ‘large impact’ on domestic violence.
Whilst the majority of domestic violence is attributable to men, alcohol also plays a role where the woman is the perpetrator and is most pervasive where both partners engage in abuse. Alcohol has also been found to feature in a staggering 88% of reported dual perpetrator cases where both partners are alcoholics or heavy drinkers. This suggests that problem drinking is more closely associated with domestic violence than occasional ‘episodic’ drinking per se –particularly important implication given the aforementioned spike in the number of risky drinkers over Covid-19.
This points to a relationship between alcohol, Covid-19 and domestic violence, with alcohol and Covid-19 playing indirect, causal roles in abuse. People are depressed, anxious and bored and drinking more than usual – making some nasty and abusive. Enclosed household environments force characters into sharp relief, with little opportunity to mask insecurities or avoid confrontation.