Sexual assault services in the pandemic: Lessons learned
Keywords:pandemic, sexual assault, disaster
The COVID-19 pandemic created many risks for sexual assault and intimate partner violence, also termed the “shadow pandemic”. At the same time, it created challenges for sexual assault healthcare teams, counsellors and clients needing to access acute services. The purpose of this descriptive qualitative study was to identify those challenges for sexual assault service providers, the impact of these challenges on services, clients and team members, and identify lessons learned for future pandemics. The participants were professionals from across Canada who provided either counselling or healthcare services to clients after they experienced recent sexual assaults. Semi-structured interviews were used and then content analysis was conducted to identify themes and compare experiences. Common themes from both counselling and healthcare were identified, most notably that the initial lockdown messaging created risks for clients. Messaging stated to only come to Emergency if in urgent need and they minimized the importance of their assaults. Visit volume thus dropped for the first few months but resumed and even became higher than pre-pandemic in some communities. Healthcare staff struggled to be seen as an essential service initially, but those affiliated with Emergency departments were able to continue in-person examinations and treatment. The nurses noted that the clients who did come had more serious and life-threatening injuries such as strangulation attempts, more mental health issues, and more often were in the context of intimate partner violence.