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Australian-first study examines intersection between experiences of long COVID and intimate partner violence

Insights delve into the frequency and severity of partner abuse, as well as how partners can weaponise long COVID symptoms to further perpetrate abusive and controlling behaviours.

TW: Intimate partner violence.

Melbourne’s Monash University has presented the findings of an Australian-first study that examines the intersection between long COVID and intimate partner violence. 

Titled Disconnected & insecure: The intersection between experiences of long COVID and intimate partner violence, the report is based on the experiences of 28 Australian adults – surveyed anonymously between April and October 2023 – who were affected by intimate partner violence and diagnosed with long COVID. 

The study’s purpose was to better understand the challenges faced by victim-survivors with long COVID, as well as the specific support they need. Researchers examined participants’ help-seeking behaviours, and how long COVID could impact victim-survivors’ decisions to remain in an abusive relationship. 

The World Health Organisation defines long COVID "as the continuation or development of new symptoms 3 months after the initial SARS-CoV-2 infection, with these symptoms lasting for at least 2 months with no other explanation".

Of the 28 people surveyed, 18 identified as female, 21 as heterosexual, and most participants were between 31 and 50 years of age and identified English as the main language spoken at home. Thirteen participants had experienced abuse in a relationship prior to their long COVID diagnoses, seven experienced abuse for the first time after being diagnosed, and 18 reported that contracting long COVID had put them at higher risk of intimate partner violence. 

“What we’ve heard first hand from victim-survivors is not just changes in the frequency and severity of partner abuse, but also how their partners weaponised their long COVID symptoms to further perpetrate abusive and controlling behaviours,” lead researcher, Professor Kate Fitz-Gibbon said in an official media statement. 

Monash Gender and Family Violence Prevention Centre (MGFVPC) researchers Dr Jasmine McGowan, Dr Naomi Pfitzner and Benjamin Scott co-authored the report with Professor Fitz-Gibbon. 

“Our study found that the mental and physical symptoms of long COVID placed victim-survivors at an increased risk of abuse. Perpetrators exploited these symptoms to further entrap their victim within coercively controlling relationships,” said Dr McGowan.

When it comes to access to support and services, several victim survivors surveyed indicated that services were either less accessible or entirely inaccessible due to their long COVID symptoms. 

“Nearly half of the victim-survivors who accessed support did so via the phone or a webchat service, highlighting the critical need to ensure continued funding for remote service delivery of domestic and family violence support services,” said Dr McGowan.

Professor Fitz-Gibbon said there’s been a critical gap in global research into how long COVID impacts victim-survivors and their safety and support needs. Not only does this study address this gap, but it provides insights into the importance of tailored support services for these victim-survivors – with engagement of GPs, medical practitioners and community support providers crucial in helping developing relevant policies. 

“Globally there has been no attention paid to the intersection between long COVID and intimate partner violence. As we move further into the new normal of ‘living with COVID’, understanding the intense and at times unique recovery needs of victim-survivors of intimate partner violence who have also experienced long COVID is critical to shaping the policy response and ensuring adequate services,” said Professor Fitz-Gibbon. 

Referring to the Australian Government's National Plan to End Violence against Women and Children, she added: “Intimate partner violence is the number one risk factor contributing to the disease burden for Australian women aged 18 to 44 years old – greater than alcohol, tobacco and illicit drug use.

“If the recovery and healing of all victim-survivors is to be better supported, increasing awareness about the risk and recovery needs of victim-survivors with long COVID experiencing abuse must be an integral piece of the National Plan’s focus on recovery and healing.” 

Ultimately, as the researchers note in this article published in The Conversation, the "complex intersection of chronic illness, ableism, and gender-based violence" can not be ignored.

For confidential support, contact 1800 RESPECT, the 24-hour national sexual assault, family and domestic violence counselling line, on 1800 737 732.