By Fadi Adra and Rasha Salem
The COVID-19 pandemic has substantially changed how we live. Amidst the tragic human and economic loss, some of society’s most vulnerable groups are at heightened risk: individuals living alone, mainly the elderly, and victims of domestic abuse confined to an unsafe home. In response, GCC countries need policies that address the impact of social isolation and coordinate vital resources to support victims of abuse.
The elderly in GCC countries increasingly live alone, a common situation in industrialized countries but a recent trend in the GCC. These older adults often report feelings of loneliness brought on by social isolation. COVID-19 is making matters much worse. The need for social distancing and the elderly’s heightened fear of contracting the virus has exacerbated disproportionately the solitude of this age group. Meanwhile, their adult children are also coping with lives disrupted by COVID-19 and may have less time to check on their elderly parents.
The pandemic has appeared at a time when governments have started to recognize the grave impact of loneliness on society. Loneliness affects mental health, productivity, physical wellbeing, and even longevity. For the elderly, social distancing restrictions can limit the ability and/or willingness to look after themselves. Some lose track of time and have difficulty adhering to medical regimens. Some are not eating enough because the effort to prepare a full, nutritious meal seems daunting—or they are simply uninterested in eating alone when meals are usually a social activity.
In response, GCC governments should rethink their care responsibilities to the elderly and how they can help fight loneliness. A good starting point is to build upon efforts made by other governments. In 2018, for example, the U.K. announced “A Connected Society,” a strategy to combat loneliness that includes a methodology to measure the phenomenon; a proactive, “light-touch” connection with at-risk individuals; designing urban/housing plans to encourage integration; reducing the stigma of loneliness; and using digital tools to keep people connected. These efforts require a coordinated approach by the government to ensure the healthcare system, technology industry, local governments and civil society all play their parts in detecting, measuring, and countering loneliness.
Economic stress is a key risk factor for domestic violence, according to the World Health Organization. In the case of COVID-19, which has shutdown thousands of businesses and pushed unemployment rates higher, the situation is worsened by the demand that people shelter in place. The stay at home requirement can create heightened risks for victims of abuse who now remain locked in with an abuser. In Jianli county of Hubei province, China, one police station had a three-fold increase in domestic violence cases compared to 2019. Despite well-acknowledged underreporting due to fear, stigma, and other barriers, reported cases are rising around the world. Underreporting is also a problem in the GCC, where victims of domestic violence rarely report their abuse except in cases of extreme physical harm.
GCC governments have been responding to the needs of victims of abuse. In 2019, Abu Dhabi developed a set of policies and designed a multi-stakeholder ecosystem to support victims – a promising early step for the region. However, even the world’s most advanced social protection programs have been unprepared for COVID-19. With the sudden increase in remote work and education, many domestic abuse cases that schools, employers, family and friends would have spotted and reported now go unnoticed behind locked doors. Domestic abuse shelters have less capacity due to social distancing rules. Travel restrictions mean fewer refuge options. House visits that social workers normally conduct to follow up on former victims have been curbed or shifted online. For some, confinement is translating to hopelessness.
In response, governments are rushing to make virtual resources accessible. Beyond standard hotlines, these resources include watch-parties, chat services, and support groups to discuss topics such as mental health, substance abuse, immigration, and legal services. One website offers an “escape” button to allow victims to exit the website quickly without leaving a trace in their browsing history. In Spain, victims too scared to call the police are being advised to use a codeword at neighborhood pharmacies. In France, police intervention in domestic violence cases has surged by a third in the week following announcement of the lockdown and the government has committed to pay for 20,000 hotel nights for victims and temporary counseling centers in supermarkets.
In the GCC, support networks for the elderly suffering loneliness and for victims of domestic abuse are relatively underdeveloped. The pandemic will stretch these networks to their limits. Shortage of experienced social workers and emergency management staff, uncoordinated implementation, and inadequate digital and data infrastructure could become a matter of life and death for vulnerable individuals.
The best policy is to invest heavily in attracting, developing, and retaining qualified talent across the ecosystem, and testing every stakeholder’s preparedness to respond. Governments should also explore innovative ways to enhance vulnerability detection and services delivery. For example, they could use existing government data (e.g., previous reports of domestic violence, recent unemployment claims) and creatively employ alternative data (e.g., segmentation of local real estate prices for socio-economic evaluation of neighborhoods) to design algorithms that identify at-risk households and direct social workers to conduct safety checks.
With the correct response, GCC governments can improve protection for the most vulnerable members of society during and after the pandemic. The strains and stresses imposed by the pandemic can become the opportunity for a stronger social safety net.
This article originally appeared in Gulf Business, May 2020.
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