The (causal) link between violence and the pandemic: Part I

The (causal) link between violence and the pandemic: Part I

The pandemic and adopted measures present a great challenge for public health, social life, the economy, and (violent) crime. In a series of blogs, we examine to what extent the pandemic has impacted violent crime. First, we discuss causality and the potential mechanisms at work.

Let us first start with the causality issue: can the pandemic and its measures be causally linked to violence rates? A preliminary assessment of crime data by the UNODC shows that in some countries such as Italy, Peru and Spain, there was an increase in the number of calls and reports of domestic violence since the lockdown measures were introduced. Other countries, such as Denmark and Mexico, noted a slight decrease at the start of the lockdown but an increase a few weeks or months later. However, the findings are limited to mainly women and children as victims and to countries with available data. For this reason, the UNDOC stress that no conclusions on global trends can be made yet because of the complexity in collecting reliable data on an underreported crime. In another UNODC research brief, data on homicides in 2020 showed quite some variability, where certain countries, such as Colombia, Guatemala, Chile, Ecuador, Italy and Spain, reported a 25 percent drop in homicides at the start of the lockdown in March and April. However, this decrease was short-lived and countries returned to pre-pandemic rates when the measures were relaxed. Other countries showed no visible change in homicide rates once the lockdown measures were installed. Overall, evidence with regards to violence rates in pandemic time are mainly anecdotal. These include, for example, Asian Americans becoming victims of hate crimes for causing the pandemic in the US or the violent riots that recently took place in the Netherlands as a response to the pandemic-driven curfew the government imposed.

While these examples suggest a cause-and-effect between the pandemic and various measures that governments have taken and violence rates, we are unable to answer this question with a definitive yes or no, simply because causality is not easily determined. There are certain criteria for establishing cause and effect, the most difficult criterion being that we are able to rule out alternative explanations for the observed relationship. Based on the research that has been done, we are nowhere near to ruling out alternative explanations. We, therefore, argue that there is a relationship between the pandemic and violence, but this relationship is not necessary causal because of other mechanisms that may play a role in this relationship.

So, what can these mechanisms be? To answer this question, we turn to criminological theories that have proven their applicability time and again in understanding (violent) crime rates. These theories can offer a fruitful starting point for research that needs to be done to unravel the complex relationship between the pandemic, governmental measures and violence. In April 2020 Manuel Eisner and Amy Nivette highlighted the most pressing questions that should form the scholarly starting point in understanding the relationship between the pandemic and violence. According to them, it is useful to distinguish between short-term and long-term mechanisms that could play a role in our observed relationship.

Eisner and Nivette argue that short-term changes of violence rates during the pandemic may be explained with the classical models of human choice. According to these theories, offenders look at situations and opportunities to commit crimes and rationally balance the costs and benefits of committing crimes. Based on these theories, we can hypothesize why certain types of violence have decreased during the pandemic and why certain types of violence have increased. For example, the lockdown measures have resulted in people staying at home. This decreases the opportunity for street robbers and burglars. The closure of bars and cafés can be an explanation for a decrease in nightlife violence. On the other hand, staying at home increases the likelihood of domestic violence, as victim and offender are placed under the same roof and are isolated from their surroundings for a long period of time - and stresses associated with job loss, social isolation, and economic uncertainty, may accumulate.

According to Eisner and Nivette, from a long-term perspective, social structure theories, and in particular strain theories can offer insights into the complex relationship between the pandemic and violence. According to these theories, stressors or strains lead to negative emotions and offenders resort to violence to escape the strain or alleviate the negative emotions. In relation to the pandemic, we hypothesize that the long closure of certain businesses and the subsequent unemployment and loss of income can result in individuals being placed under strain. From this line of reasoning, the likelihood of domestic violence should increase. Furthermore, we can also expect an increased risk of rioting in areas where the measures have a high economic impact.

We have taken the suggestions given by Eisner and Nivette to heart and for this reason we have worked on two blogs that look at the relationship between the pandemic and violence. In this first blog we have set the scene by arguing that we cannot speak of a causal relationship between the pandemic, its measures and violence rates, but instead that we need to look at mechanisms that can explain this relationship. In our second blog (out in June) we will examine the mechanisms of this relationship empirically by looking specifically at the Dutch homicide rates. With these two blogs we hope to further our knowledge on how the pandemic and its measures impact violent crime.