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Incidences of Violence Increased During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Violence, harassment, and discrimination are on the rise, a new study finds.

Key points

  • Nineteen percent of people reported increases in violence in their communities during the pandemic, according to new research.
  • People also reported increased violence against women and children, increased cyber-sexual harassment and many faced discrimination.
  • Increases in violence may be linked to added stressors and social isolation during the pandemic, but rates of violence may persist post-COVID.

At the start of the pandemic, I met with other psychologists, educators, and nonprofit leaders and we all voiced concerns over what challenges our community members might face due to pandemic-related shutdowns and increased stressors. We discussed difficulties with remote schooling and employment, but one of our key concerns was regarding violence: Would incidences of violence increase due to elevated pandemic-related daily stressors and COVID-19 isolation?

New data reports that increases in violence have indeed occurred, as well as increases in incidences of discrimination. The University of California San Diego researchers and NORC at the University of Chicago conducted a survey at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March of 2020, and then again in March of 2021. This study design allowed a direct comparison of data from the start of pandemic-related shutdowns and then again one year later.

The sample of surveyed participants is representative, meaning that statistical sampling was used to make conclusions that are representative of California adults based on key demographics including age, race/ethnicity, income, and disability. The survey of 2,203 adult Californians demonstrated that in addition to difficulties people faced due to rising unemployment or job loss (57 percent reported lost jobs), discrimination, harassment, and violence have risen.

Data Shows Violence on the Rise During COVID-19

Nineteen percent of respondents reported an increase in violence in their communities during the pandemic. Threats with a weapon increased from 4 percent in 2020 to 7 percent in 2021. Past year reports of violence for females doubled from 3 percent in 2020 to 6 percent in 2021. Additionally, 16 percent of respondents reported increased partner violence against women in their community. This especially impacted Black (23 percent) and Latina (18 percent) women disproportionately when compared with White (7 percent) and Asian (11 percent) survey participants.

Additional concerns arise over the safety of children. Eleven percent of study participants reported increased family violence against children in their community. And 20 percent reported increased neighborhood violence in their community. Blacks (20 percent), Latinx people (23 percent), and Asians (23 percent) reported this more than Whites (14 percent).

With many individuals working in online spaces during the pandemic or generally spending more time online, the study also explored incidences of online harassment. Reports of past year cyber-sexual harassment increased from 3 percent in 2020 to 6 percent in 2021. Females were more likely to report this form of abuse. Just a reminder that this study featured adult participants, so emerging data from other studies are needed to determine the impact of online harassment for children or adolescents during this time period.

According to Dr. Anita Raj, the principal investigator of the study, “We found significant increases in physical violence as well as cyber-sexual harassment of women over the past year pandemic period, with abuses most commonly coming in the forms of family and partner violence. Isolation at home may have helped prevent infection, but it also left many vulnerable to those who harm them.”

In addition to increasing reports of violence, more than 1 in 4 (26 percent) Californians surveyed reported that they faced discrimination during a typical week. Blacks were more likely to report discrimination (40 percent), followed by Asians (31 percent), and Latinx people (33 percent). Whites reported facing discrimination in a typical week at 16 percent. Discrimination itself is a form of violence against one’s ability to fully access one’s human rights and it needs to be considered as an important indicator of societal well-being.

Recommendations

What can be done to reduce or eliminate these rising incidences of violence and discrimination? States should consider funding initiatives that support survivors of violence as part of post-COVID-19 relief packages.

Knowing that violence rose during the pandemic does not mean that the rates of violence will automatically fall post-pandemic. Patterns of violence may persist long after times of crisis. Thus, in addition to providing prevention-based community education, community and psychology networks need to be able to provide services to all those impacted by the violence. Better networks for reporting discrimination need to be created, funded, and facilitated while survivors of discrimination need access to emotional support.

When discrimination rises within communities of color, more attention needs to be paid to the data so that anti-discrimination policies and legislative action can be strengthened. Serious attention should be paid to this data as any increases in violence directly impact individual and community well-being.

References

To Learn More: CalVEX 2020 surveyed experiences of violence in the past year in California, conducted in March 2020. The CalVEX 2021 study was conducted in March 2021, allowing for a direct comparison between state-level representative data collected at the start of the pandemic versus one year later. Full results are available at https://geh.ucsd.edu/cal-vex/.

The survey of 2,203 California adults was conducted March 12-24, 2021 by NORC at the University of Chicago. Funding for the study was provided by Blue Shield Foundation of California and Kaiser Permanente. The margin of sampling error is +/- 2.9 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

Note: Dr. Bintliff is an unpaid member of the CalVEX 2020 and 2021 Advisory Board.

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