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  • Mythri Raveendranathan

The Shadow Pandemic: The 'Neglected' Frontier

Over the last two years, COVID-19 has plunged the world into a war - the likes of which have never been seen by modern society. Every day, another new battle is being waged on multiple frontiers. While front-line hospital, emergency and healthcare workers are fighting a disease without a cure, the government is grappling with the immense economic and public health fallout. And whilst the public abides by ceaseless restrictions and strict isolation rules, flocking to the Internet to stay connected, the fight against rampant misinformation and fearmongering continues. The war against COVID-19 has been relentless. However, there is another demon lurking at our heels, far less publicised than the fight against the coronavirus. The ‘Shadow Pandemic’, as it has been popularly termed since last year, refers to the growing rates of violence against girls and women since the onset of COVID-19.

Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) rates have increased and intensified across the globe since 2020, with the number of helpline calls growing five-fold in some countries. As countries raced to solidify their health, economic and political response to the coronavirus, SGBV issues fell to the sideline. However, the COVID-19 response has only exacerbated the issue. Quarantine and isolation efforts have led to a number of factors that have impacted SGBV rates, including security, health and money worries, forced isolation with abusers, restrictions on movement and freedom, and emptier public areas. The diversion of emergency response efforts to COVID-19-affected patients has also weakened the resources available for those suffering from SGBV. Resources which have traditionally been a sanctuary for girls and women, including domestic violence shelters, have either reached their capacity (often reduced due to restrictions), or are unable to carry out their normal operations in the setting of the pandemic.

In the almost two years that have elapsed since the beginning of the pandemic, the impact of these exacerbating factors has been acknowledged by countries, activists and organisations alike. The popular term ‘shadow pandemic’ is used to refer to this change, and the increasing violence. Whilst the name is short and pithy – cornerstones of media catchphrases – they hold worrying implications for perception. Describing the issue as one that exists in the shadows (or in the shadow of COVID-19, depending on the interpretation) implies that SGBV is an issue to be swept under the carpet. And whilst under-reporting is a crucial issue that must be addressed, violence against girls and women can no longer be treated as if it is something to be hidden, as it only perpetuates the cycle. Furthermore, the idea that SGBV exacerbation is a ‘pandemic’ is inherently problematic on many levels. It ignores the truth that for many women, this violence did not begin in 2020 with the coronavirus. It is a violence engendered by systemic, political, economic and cultural gaps and flaws. It is a violence that has existed for centuries, and it is not one that will fade with two jabs of a vaccine. If we are to treat SGBV as a pandemic, then we should only do so with the urgency and collaboration that COVID-19 has found within all of us – this is not a pandemic that we can ‘learn to live with’.

The increased attention surrounding SGBV since COVID-19 does show promise. Increasing awareness and government action will hopefully put an end to the rise in rates. But we have to do more than coin catchy media phrases or be grateful that we have not been ‘met with bullets’ whilst fighting a war on a neglected frontier.

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