In early 2020 I got stuck in New York as the world came to grips with the COVID pandemic. I had been supporting a group of Aboriginal and Pacific First Nations women who went there to tell their story and build relationships internationally, in their work to end violence against First Nations women. Over the month, I watched the city go from business as usual to what looked like the beginning of the apocalypse.
I was unemployed and sleeping on a friend’s sofa bed in Brooklyn and then in a borrowed Hell’s Kitchen hotel room, eating dollar pizza slices and staying up til midnight to reassure my partner and kids back home in Canberra that everything was fine, even though my flights had been cancelled and I didn’t know if or when I would ever get out. I had the privilege of choosing to live with insecurity. I had identified my exits and worked out where to find safety as each of my plans failed, and I finally made it home at the end of March.
Back home in Canberra, I saw news photos of a thousand bed US Navy hospital ship docked at the pier a few blocks from the Hell’s Kitchen hotel where I had stayed two weeks earlier. In May, I watched video footage of Black Lives Matter protests, a burning police car in Union Square outside the Best Buy where I had picked up cheap headphones to make calls for the Bernie Sanders campaign. But while I was comfortable in my warm house with food in the cupboard and my family safe, many in my own community were dealing with insecurity inside their own homes.
For most of us, security during the early days of the pandemic was about health security: preventing exposure to the virus, and protecting those most at risk. Lockdown aimed to reduce those risks. But it came with increased seclusion and control for people experiencing domestic and family violence, mostly women. Local services said they experienced a drop in calls during that period, as women couldn’t safely call for help when their abuser was in the house with them constantly. It doesn’t mean the abuse stopped – just the time and space to seek help. As restrictions eased and services found other ways to make themselves accessible to people such as text messaging, they reported massive increases in requests for help.
Loss of work hours impacted women more than men. Casual jobs in retail, hospitality, tourism, and the arts had their hours cut, with more women in those jobs than men. But JobKeeper rules required that a person must be in a job for a 12 month period to be an eligible employee. For industries with low pay and high staff turnover, employing more women than men as casuals, this means many thousands of women were left completely dependent on their partner for financial support. In a relationship where abuse occurs, financial stress can trigger a cycle of violence. While JobKeeper was intended to reduce income loss due to unemployment or lack of casual shifts, there was an undeniable gender gap in who was eligible. As at the end of January 2021, more than 10,000 workers in my city of Canberra were still receiving JobKeeper, around a quarter of the number who received the payment in April to September 2020. Most of those workers will now be unemployed, with the scheme having ended on 28 March 2021. As a result of the pandemic and inadequate government support, more women have found themselves financially dependent on their partner, increasing the danger if they also experience domestic violence.