This article is dedicated to Dr Lorena Quaranta, killed by a man on 31st March 2020.
By Jessica Sutton.
For many women and girls, the threat looms largest where they should be safest — in their own homes. I urge all governments to put women’s safety first as they respond to the pandemic.
– Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres.
Lorena Quaranta, a 27-year-old student doctor working tirelessly to care for Italian citizens suffering COVID-19, was found dead on the floor of her apartment last week, just as COVID-19 fatalities in Italy rose to 13,915. She was strangled to death. The alleged perpetrator is her partner, who later claimed: “I killed her because she gave me coronavirus”. Neither Ms Quaranta’s partner, nor Ms Quaranta herself (whose COVID-19 test was carried out posthumously) tested positive for COVID-19. The media have largely emphasised the alleged perpetrator’s COVID-19 concerns, rather than situating the killing in the context of gender-based violence.
Cheryl Schriefer, living in a suburb near Chicago, was last week shot in the back of the head by her long-time partner. Her partner then shot himself, citing the fear that Ms Schriefer had caught coronavirus, and passed it on to him. Both Ms Schriefer and the perpetrator tested negative for COVID-19 when they were posthumously tested. Once again, the media have presented the death as a result of intense COVID-19 paranoia, and have ignored the fact that the main victims of this “paranoia” are women.
These are only two of the many cases of femicide which are occurring during the COVID-19 pandemic, with pandemic stressors worsening an already extant “shadow pandemic” of gender-based violence, which continues to cost women their lives.
Certain regions of China have had calls to domestic violence helplines triple since regional quarantines began. Calls to domestic violence helplines in France have increased by 30%, Singapore’s by 33%, Argentina’s by 25%, while Canada, the USA, the UK, Spain, and Germany have all reported increased helpline calls and reports. Australia is in an even poorer situation, with the COVID-19 crisis coming swiftly after the Australian bushfires crisis, which also resulted in a spike in domestic violence reports. The compounded levels of stress due to these two crises appears to be leading to an even higher possibility of severe domestic violence.
New Zealand is two weeks into a four-week lockdown and has seen some increase in domestic violence callouts. However, it must be remembered that less than 40% of domestic violence victims report episodes of violence. Therefore, the true increase in domestic violence during the lockdown is likely far larger than is being registered by New Zealand Police. Women’s Refuge has reported that over 60% of its refuges have reported an increase in use of their services during lockdown.
Not only has the level of physical abuse increased, but there are reports of the COVID-19 crisis being used to the advantage of offenders: namely, as an instrument of psychological violence. Psychological violence, which comes under the umbrella of family violence in New Zealand through the Family Violence Act 2018, typically involves threats of physical or sexual abuse, intimidation or harassment, damage to property, ill-treatment of household pets, financial or economic abuse, and hindering or removing access to medication or other support.
However, reports are increasing globally of domestic violence perpetrators using threats of COVID-19 infection to terrorise their victims and prevent them from accessing domestic violence services. A domestic violence charity in the USA detailed women suffering economic abuse due to COVID-19 job losses, as well as women being forced out of the house by perpetrators and thereby exposed to infection. Perpetrators have also been reported as trying to infect women in their households by intentionally defying lockdown measures, and preventing female family members using hand sanitiser, soap, and showers. One Australian report included a perpetrator inviting guests to the home, telling their female partner that the male guests had COVID-19, and were there to infect her.
Meanwhile, in Australia, women are “terrified” at reports that domestic violence offenders are allegedly gaining immediate release on parole due to concerns around COVID-19 infection in prisons. In one case, the perpetrator pleaded guilty to setting his partner’s house and car on fire, destroying her phone, and viciously assaulting her. He was sentenced to three years with immediate parole. The victim, who has remained anonymous, has stated that “the law has yet again failed women and children, as he is extremely dangerous”. This is an extremely offensive decision, in the same country which so recently saw the system failure that resulted in Hannah Clarke and her children being burnt to death by her partner. Release of violent offenders when the protection of women and children remains poor, is the act of an irresponsible state. Concerns of COVID-19 entering the prison system are significant, but protection of the community from violent offenders must remain paramount.
We are lucky in New Zealand, that the government has already pledged 27 million dollars to organisations such as Women’s Refuge to allow them to continue their services during lockdown. Women in situations of violence can therefore leave the house to seek help during lockdown. Not all domestic violence organisations have this financial support. However, New Zealand needs to go further. France allows women to make calls from safe places such as pharmacies’ phones to make reports to Police, with the government also pledging to organise hotel rooms and pop-up counselling for domestic violence victims. These are all initiatives the New Zealand government should consider as the crisis continues.
The important thing for us to remember, is that just because we are physical distancing, that does not mean that we can’t look out for those in our communities we think might be at risk. It is key, now more than ever, to reach out to women who may be in situations of violence, so that they feel they are not alone. However, it should be kept in mind that women are more likely to have their phone and computer usage monitored by a controlling partner during this time. To compensate for this, Women’s Refuge staff have suggested that establishing a code-word with a vulnerable neighbour, family member, or friend would be an advisable tactic. This code-word would warn the receiver that the sender is feeling unsafe, and that the receiver should call the Police to the home. We each have a responsibility, within the constraints of the lockdown, to offer support to women and children in these situations.
As Lorena Quaranta posted on social media, days before she was killed: “Now, more than ever, we need to demonstrate responsibility and love for life”. In memory of the women on our healthcare frontlines who are dying of COVID-19, and the women who are falling victim to male violence at home during lockdowns, we have a duty to look out for others, and as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern reminds us, we have a duty to be kind.
At the time of her death, Ms Quaranta was less than three months away from graduating from a six-year medical degree. Messina University hopes to posthumously award her the medical degree she strived so hard for.
0800 733 843 Women’s Refuge crisis line — free call, 24/7.
0508 744 633 Shine Helpline — free call, 9am to 11pm every day.
0800 742 584 Shakti crisis line — multilingual, available 24/7.
0800 456 450 It’s Not OK info line — free call, 9am to 11pm every day.
0800 456 450 Family violence information line — available 9am to 11pm every day.
 Family Violence Act 2018, s 11.