New Zealand has risen to the challenge of Covid-19 and it has paid off. But what about the pandemic we’re not conquering? Family violence expert Dr Natalie Thorburn asks us to take seriously the number of women murdered by male partners in this country.

This year has been the year of a global pandemic. At the same time, violence against women has been termed the ‘shadow pandemic’ – but has attracted a very different response to Covid-19. On March 11, the WHO declared Covid-19 a pandemic. New Zealand acted hard and fast with precautionary measures only days after that declaration. We’ve been held up as a shining example of a nation that effectively halted the spread of the virus. But what about the parallel ‘shadow’ pandemic? Where is the same committed, proactive response to that?

We had our first Covid-19 case on the February 28. Two weeks later, Government introduced mandatory self-isolation for returning travellers, and a week after that, implemented the four-tier alert system, followed by lockdown. “Stay safe, be kind” was the public health messaging, and we all, together, rose to that challenge – even when that took a toll on our work, finances, or mental health.

Perhaps the only advantage of a global pandemic is the chance to compare policy approaches in real time. We’re nearing the end of 2020, and New Zealand has had 25 deaths. We took the pandemic precautions seriously, and it paid off. The terrifying numbers of cases and deaths around the world attest to that.

But the scale of our deaths from Covid-19 is equivalent to roughly 2.5 years of women murdered by male partners in New Zealand. The United Nations has often referred to violence against women as a ‘pandemic’ – it claims the lives of women in every country, and is debilitating for a much larger proportion of women. It is a pandemic New Zealand is not conquering. Twelve women were killed by male partners here last year. Unlike with Covid-19, we have embarrassingly high rates of gendered violence compared to other countries.

For this pandemic, we seem to have put down our face masks, and picked up our blindfolds.

Imagine what we could achieve if we took this as seriously as our Covid-19 response? Just imagine if every single case of ‘transmission’, of the social sanctioning of violence against women being ‘passed on’, was tracked and responded to. Imagine if men threatening women with violence were met with the same penalties as the idiot who made a show of coughing at the supermarket to scare people. Imagine if we treated every instance of men using violence against women in front of their kids as equivalent to intentionally infecting someone with a communicable disease. Imagine if health services screened for family violence just as thoroughly and carefully as they screen for Covid-19.

Imagine if the men breaching their protection orders by continuing to harass their victims faced the same social judgements and legal consequences as those who broke the lockdown rules. Imagine if those most likely to ‘carry’ the violence (much like those of us who were young, healthy, and thus designated to get the groceries during Covid-19) were the most careful and vigilant. Not because they were at risk themselves, but because they wanted to protect people more vulnerable to violence. Imagine how many lives we could save, and how many women and children would be free from fear, if we acknowledged a collective responsibility to ending men’s violence?

And why should we? Whose responsibility is that? There lies the important difference between our responses to these two pandemics. When we talk about Covid-19, we talk about innocent people dying. We regard them as victims of the virus. We do not judge them or blame them for getting sick. We do not assume that their deaths are the result of their own wrongdoing. The very basis for our fear of Covid-19 is that we cannot predict ahead of time who will become infected.

Our response to Covid-19 as a nation has been outstanding. Our response to the pandemic of men’s violence has been abysmal.

We need to think the same way about men’s violence. We do not get careful, daily updates of family violence cases. There are rarely powerful people issuing genuine calls to action each time a woman dies from men’s violence. If we talk about her at all, we give ourselves and each other comforting (false) platitudes about why it will not be us dying. ‘She must have done something wrong’, we tell ourselves. Something that we would not have done. After all, you can see violence. It’s something that happens to (and by) other people, who should have ‘seen the signs’.

The truth is, we don’t see it until we have to. Sometimes, by then, it’s already too late. Many of us choose not to see it at all, confident that we are not at risk ourselves. The usual ‘carriers’ (men) are not taking extra care to avoid accidentally transmitting it by tuning into updates about how they can change attitudes and culture. Many women take precautions, because they have to, but these are met with Trump-esque ridicule by people who think they’re being ridiculous or paranoid. Criminal courts brush off early signs of infection. They hand down prison sentences for offenders who damage cars, but home detention for offenders who brutalise women – and that’s despite knowing that 93 percent of men who murder their women partners already have convictions for violence.

Family courts send those spreading the pandemic back into children’s lives, seemingly not seeing the potential for transmission to children when the violence continues. Police ignore the symptoms reported by women stalked by ex-partners, and only sometimes take breaches of protection orders against those same partners seriously. For this pandemic, we seem to have put down our face masks, and picked up our blindfolds.

Our response to Covid-19 as a nation has been outstanding. Our response to the pandemic of men’s violence has been abysmal.

Young women, like so many others, sacrificed so much of their freedom in 2020 to keep everyone else safe. It worked, and they would do it again. But women are still being hurt and killed. It’s time for our communities, and especially men, to start putting the same amount of effort into them safe, and stopping the spread of gendered violence.

Dr Natalie Thorburn is family violence policy advisor.

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