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Looking up at Abbey House in Durham

by Olivia Barnard, third year undergraduate at Durham University and will begin a Master’s programme at Durham in Autumn 2020

The coronavirus is a public health crisis with serious global social implications. Like all emergencies, the virus has not affected everyone in the same manner. The UK government implored its citizens to ‘stay home’ in order to slow the spread of the disease. As a population, we withdrew from the public realm with the intent to save lives and protect our NHS; our homes were marked as places of relative safety. However, for many this was not the case. The restrictions imposed had different repercussions for many and the reality of living under lockdown meant that new dangers were able to flourish.

Across the UK, many were confronted with the actuality that the home was in fact, not a safe place to be. Victims of domestic abuse, both men and women alike, were faced with the conundrum that the options for shielding against the virus conflicted with the options to protect against an abuser. Confinement to the home meant that many were subject to serious physical, psychological and sexual abuse, with lockdown measures creating the perfect conditions for perpetrators of domestic violence to exploit their victims. Increased anxiety, financial stress, and rising numbers of unemployment have exacerbated the domestic violence crisis with the virus revealing the myriad of ways in which violence within the home manifests.

Although so far there has been no official research dedicated to tracking the national trends in domestic violence related to the pandemic, several indicators point to a marked increase in cases throughout this period. Within the first few weeks of the restrictions, it was reported that there had been a surge in levels of domestic abuse. In the first three weeks of lockdown, fourteen women and two children were murdered. Refuge, the UK’s largest domestic abuse charity, also reported a 700% increase in calls to its helpline in a single day in April. Calls in general to abuse hotlines were also reportedly up by 50% whilst the police simultaneously observed a rise in arrests for domestic violence-related incidents. The UN has since termed this the ‘shadow pandemic’.

Many victims found themselves to be increasingly isolated and without access to crucial resources. Questions over the nature of solidarity and how you practice solidarity have arisen in light of Covid-19. Here, it is interesting to focus on not only our changing concept of solidarity but also our changing experience at the same time. We are living in an unnatural state of being. The pandemic has served to reinforce that we are social beings by nature. We are vulnerable, we are interdependent, we are co-creative. We are made for forms of social participation and solidarity. In times of crisis, we often draw closer to those whom we love for support. However, very obviously, these ways of being a social creature come under the spotlight within the context of Covid-19. In a time like this, we must seriously examine how we show solidarity, especially to those most vulnerable.

Forms of solidarity throughout the pandemic have emerged as almost the opposite of everything we thought solidarity to be thus far. The pandemic has disrupted our public life. In order to continually act as social beings and to be in solidarity with one another, we have had to rethink virtually everything we thought we knew about solidarity. Expressing solidarity toward each other, which normally means we draw close to one another, has been bent back on itself. Rather than it being about proximity, physical contact, gathering, building social movements, and interaction, suddenly the way to be social is to effectively withdraw and create distance. Questions over the nature of solidarity and how you practice solidarity arise in light of COVID-19. It is interesting to focus here on not only our changing concept of solidarity but also our changing experience at the same time.

Social media is often condemned for heightening issues to do with domestic abuse. However, over lockdown extraordinary symbols of solidarity were shown on platforms like Twitter and Instagram to help victims of abuse. In a time where many people have never felt more isolated, those most vulnerable have been able to signal for help in unprecedented ways. Creatively, beauty technicians created codes using the services they offered as ways to signal for help. Different beauty treatments symbolised the various ways in which victims could be helped.

In light of this, drawing from the thought of Hannah Arendt, lockdown has shown that we can never be truly be wholly private persons. Even under the conditions, we have remained public persons with cases of domestic abuse also serving to reaffirm why being public persons is so important. We learn from Arendt that public action is action in which we differentiate ourselves, we are individuated, and in some manner we become of service to others and the greater good. The public sphere is the space where we are able to take risks, subject our common life to scrutiny, but more importantly, seek justice. Further, the conditions of lockdown serve to reaffirm not only that we are co-dependent but that displays of solidarity are constantly evolving.