As people across the country stay at home and practice physical distancing to limit the spread of COVID-19, public health agencies and community organizations are stepping up in new ways to prevent violence and support safety. During this time, violence in communities persists and concerns about increased gun purchases, intimate partner violence, child abuse, suicide, elder maltreatment, and bias-motivated violence against Chinese and other Asian American communities are rising. What we’ve learned over time about a public health approach to preventing violence is ever more important: we need to examine the data, put community members in the lead, and work across sectors. Based on the early unfolding of the pandemic and discussions with Prevention Institute’s partners, here’s what we’re seeing groups do to respond:
- Identify and advocate for emerging needs. Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and the social and economic fallout from it, the needs of the communities we work with have been exacerbated and their priorities may have shifted. Reaching out to community members in creative ways and listening to them is how we’ll be able to understand what support residents need right now and what to advocate for. This pandemic is taking an especially hard toll on those who were already facing limited access to resources and opportunities that support health and safety, including communities with low incomes, communities of color, immigrant communities, incarcerated communities, LGBTQ communities, and seniors in nursing homes. Basic human needs like food, shelter, income, and access to healthcare are a top priority. At this time, advocating for policies and programs that help meet people’s needs—such as “grab-and-go” school meals for students, eviction protections, and paid sick leave for all workers—may help decrease stressors and address risk factors for violence such as economic instability. Pastor Michael McBride, a national gun violence prevention activist, is co-leading a campaign called Masks for the People, which is distributing masks, hand sanitizer, and testing kits in jails, urban neighborhoods, and rural communities facing poverty.
- Confront racism and xenophobia as public health issues. Way before this pandemic took shape, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, became the first US city to declare racism a public health crisis. More than 100 studies have linked racism to poor health outcomes. The first visible targets of racism during the coronavirus crisis were Asian Americans and local Chinatowns. Now we’re learning about the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on African Americans and Latinos—communities that often experience elevated risk for violence. There are many structural reasons for this: African Americans and Latinos often work in frontline essential service jobs that cannot be done from home, live in dense housing conditions, and have limited access to medical care. As we develop responses to meet the current moment, we need to ensure that racial justice is at the center of our actions and our decision making. Cities United’s COVID-19 resources look at short- and long-term changes that are needed to support community resilience and healing-centered approaches, with a focus on Black men and boys. NAACP has a form to report possible civil rights violations, Black Policy Lab is conducting a COVID While Black survey, and many advocates are speaking out about the disproportionate impacts of punitive approaches on communities of color. The National Innovation Service has published An Equitable Systems Transformation Framework for COVID-19.
- Coordinate rather than duplicate. Many groups are wanting to take action to support their communities and at the same time not duplicate what other groups are doing. Coordination and collaboration within and across communities can help in developing strategies quickly and in an effective manner. In Milwaukee, the Office of Violence Prevention out of the city’s health department is convening standing calls with its partners. This will help ensure violence prevention partners, community response workers, faith organizations, and youth development/after school programs are operating in coordination with one another and meeting emerging needs in the community.
- Support healing as part of the path forward. The inequities further exposed by COVID-19 are happening “on top of” already existing community trauma as a result of structural violence. This level of disruption to life can be overwhelming and reactivate pre-existing traumas. We’re seeing partners focus on healing and sharing out messages that emphasize hope, resilience, and self-care. National Compadres Network is exploring how to virtually facilitate its healing circles that focus on indigenous culturally based practices for men, their families, and communities. The network is sharing guided meditations, songs, poetry and other items that might help with grounding during this time of stressors and losses and uncertainties about the future.
- Get creative about maintaining and strengthening social connections. Social connection is a known protective factor against violence. Connecting with others provides a sense of belonging and community. It’s also an important way to reduce stress. But it’s harder than ever to stay connected when we’re all practicing physical distancing. Many organizations are creating online safe spaces using Zoom. Others are reaching out to community members who don’t have regular access to in-home Internet via phone, text messaging, or WhatsApp. Some groups are finding ways to connect safely offline. In Chicago, 200 street outreach workers have expanded their efforts beyond preventing gun violence. As trusted community members, they are now also sharing health information about COVID-19. In Fresno, CA, Mujeres Poderosas Amorosas is using its network driven by Latina immigrants to connect seniors and younger neighbors to ensure seniors receive regular check-ins and help picking up groceries or medicine.
- Support healthy relationships during ‘stay at home’ orders. Stress is a risk factor for multiple forms of violence, and this is a period of multiple sources of stress, which can further be exacerbated by partners, families or groups sheltering in the same place together. Several organizations and agencies have created resources to support healthy relationships. These include the World Health Organization’s advice for the public on parenting in the time of COVID-19; information on coping from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network; and One Love Foundation’s advice on maintaining healthy relationships at home. The California Partnership to End Domestic Violence (the Partnership) and the National Network to End Domestic Violence have also compiled lists of helpful resources. Another issue that is coming up in homes is the need to look out for and prevent digital dating abuse during this time when young people are out of school and spending more time interacting with their friends and schoolmates online.
- Restrict access to guns—inside and outside of the home. In homes where family members own guns, there is a risk of unintentional injury, suicide, and homicide. In St. Louis, MO, Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justice has been emphasizing the importance of safe firearm storage. The Center for American Progress has provided data people can use to make the case for not buying guns in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. PI also advocates for resisting the efforts of the gun industry to keep gun shops open as “essential businesses.” In response to the rise in gun sales, Hope and Heal Fund and California Wellness Foundation are urging philanthropy to invest resources to ensure that community-based organizations that work on the front lines of gun violence are in a position to continue to do their work. Research shows gun availability is a risk factor for violent deaths in homes and in the broader community.
- Speak up about the need for safe access to public spaces and speak out against punitive approaches to enforce physical distancing. In response to COVID-19, many municipalities have closed parks, playgrounds, and other public recreation facilities. While we recognize that physical distancing is our best available strategy to contain COVID-19, we believe that the lifesaving physical and mental health benefits that are derived from physical activity and contact with nature makes it worth asking whether, in some cases, parks and other public spaces can be kept open and managed for safety. This op-ed makes the case that if we can safely distance at the grocery store, surely we can do the same at parks. The CDC has published recommendations for the use and administration of parks and recreation facilities during the pandemic. We are also concerned that using law enforcement approaches like citing or arresting people to enforce physical distancing creates unnecessary risks for people most likely to experience police violence, especially African-American and Latino men and boys.
- Think beyond the pandemic. COVID-19 drives home the fact that we need a robust public health infrastructure that equitably supports health, safety, and wellbeing. This includes an investment in preventing violence through a public health approach—where health departments can offer data and research and partner with residents and different city agencies and nonprofit organizations to improve safety. It’s clear that some communities—especially communities of color—are particularly impacted by COVID-19 due to longstanding inequities in the ways our communities are designed and resourced. We need to co-develop public health solutions with those most affected in ways that support health equity and racial justice. We need to build on community strengths, acknowledge the roots of inequities, and foster healing as we address factors that put communities at risk, such as limited economic opportunities, housing instability, and insufficient access to parks and open spaces. PI’s policy portal and policy priorities offer examples of actions we’re advocating in the immediate and long term.