Sisters Uncut Statement on COVID-19
Monday, April 27, 2020
COVID-19 is not only biological – it is social, economic and political.
While it may appear that the devastating impacts of coronavirus exist in their own terrifying vacuum, the last decade of cuts to services across the UK will hugely impact who lives and who dies over the coming months.
We must never forget the fact that this virus will have specific and deadly impacts for survivors, for black and brown people, for people with insecure immigration status, for those who are incarcerated and detained, for those without homes and for those who are chronically ill, disabled and with compromised immune systems.
When the government asks us to stay at home and practice social distancing, it ignores that not everyone has a safe indoor space – the lack of safe indoor spaces is not a private problem – it is a state problem. Media narratives have so far largely focused on individuals – blaming them and heroising them. This is not the time to focus on individuals. We must be focusing on state decisions, which are killing people. We as Sisters Uncut have seen and denounced the impacts of austerity on survivors since 2014, and now more than ever we are seeing the impact of gutted services on those who are routinely made to be the most vulnerable.
For survivors of domestic and sexual abuse staying at home, staying indoors means confinement with those who harm them. Across the world, workers on domestic and sexual violence helplines and specialised services, the police and activists have been pointing to a rise in the reporting of domestic violence cases with the COVID-19 outbreak. In the UK, The National Domestic Abuse Helpline has seen a huge increase in calls and online requests since mandatory isolation. These statistics are so frightening, for behind each number is a person experiencing trauma; but it is also important to remember that police reporting numbers will never tell us everything. Many survivors of abuse never report their experiences to the police, and never speak out, for so many varying reasons. We know the decision to not call the police or reach out for support will only increase during times of quarantine. We know that this will mean more people die at the hands of abusers.
Enforced quarantine means that services provided by the domestic violence and violence against women and girls sectors have been severely effected, even though they have been working towards offering support by alternative and virtual means. Given already limited numbers of refuge spaces, many women will have no alternative but to remain with harm doers or face homelessness. Survivors who will feel this most painfully are those who live with additionally intersecting marginalisations, indeed women of colour are already being turned away from refuges. This problem precedes COVID-19 – 64% of referrals in England were declined in 2018-19 and 44% of survivors were forced to sofa surf before being given a refuge space – but these numbers will only be aggravated in the present context.
Women with precarious immigration status find it especially difficult to seek shelter because not only do many know that reaching out can result in detention and deportation, but when they do seek support there is often nowhere for them to go due to the lack of beds for those with no recourse to public funds. Southall Black Sisters and Compassion in Politics have already been asking hotels to use their rooms free of charge to house women fleeing domestic violence in the COVID-19 context.
State sanctioned, and police imposed, isolation also means increased state surveillance, which will disproportionately impact black and brown people. Laws are already used and misused by racist, sexist, ableist and homophobic police forces across the world, and the rules under the Coronavirus Act will be no different. Emergency changes to the Mental Health Act will also mean people can be detained on the recommendation of only one doctor. The maximum length of detention has also been extended. The mental health detention rate is four times higher for black people. We are deeply concerned about the ways that the premise of disease prevention will be used as an excuse to increase the violence and harm done to communities of colour by these institutions.
For people who are incarcerated and detained, the new COVID-19 laws means increased unsafe self-isolation and further confinement within cells; a disproportionate number of those in prison are racialised and also survivors of abuse. Prisons and detention centres are often overcrowded and do not have adequate hygiene or healthcare provision and so are incubators of coronavirus. Women and non-binary people in prisons and detention centres may be more vulnerable to COVID-19 because of underlying health conditions. Vital support networks have also been severed by recent legislation, preventing “unnecessary” travel, which will have a detrimental impact on those with additional health needs such as survivors and our trans sisters and siblings, both inside and outside of detention settings. There are already confirmed COVID-19 cases in Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre and Brook House detention centres and across at least 69 prisons in England and Wales  including at least 15 deaths of prisoners as of Thursday 23rd April , yet people continue to be locked up, safety measures put in place are beyond inadequate and promises to release more people have not been realised. Keeping people locked in cells is state violence and any deaths in custody are state sanctioned.
For survivors who are unhoused, social distancing is impossible. COVID-19 has exacerbated the housing crisis in the UK, where 320,000 people are unhoused. Cuts to housing support means that many people sleep rough or stay in cramped conditions with no way to protect themselves or self-isolate. It is very common that folks who are unhoused are dealing with chronic illness and other conditions that place them at greater risk should they contract the virus. In the 18 months preceding 2019, over 800 people died on the streets of the UK – we can expect this number to increase sharply as COVID-19 sweeps the country, but we will most likely never hear of the deaths of many who are street homeless.
Women and non-binary people who are homeless continue to be at increased risk of violence in shelters and on the streets. All of this happens while commercial properties stand empty and the rich choose between multiple properties in which to self-isolate. We see efforts to open up hotels and other luxury spaces left unoccupied during the pandemic, and while want this to continue once this subsides we also know this is not – and will never be – enough to quell the impacts of austerity.
As the grassroots sex worker-led collective SWARM have told us, this pandemic has caused their industry to evaporate almost overnight. If sex work was decriminalised and sex workers in brothels and strip clubs had worker status then they would be able to have 80% of their wages supplemented rather than being left with no income at all and waiting months for the self-employed grant. Outdoor sex workers find their workplace criminalised and police will have greater powers to exercise over them; a worry when so many sex workers are already routinely harassed by police. Sex workers may find themselves agreeing to see risky clients because this is their only option; this situation puts sex workers at risk of experiencing sexual violence and abuse. A rent and bills amnesty alongside the provision of a basic income would alleviate the pressure sex workers now find themselves under.
Those with disabilities, chronic illnesses and compromised immune systems can’t practice social distancing if they require support from carers. While paying shallow lip service to the fact that these folks were at greater risk should they contract the virus, the government’s actual response to the COVID-19 crisis has endangered their lives. The initial approach of the Tory government to “building herd immunity” placed the lives of those more vulnerable to the virus in most danger and has resulted in hundreds of preventable deaths. Deep cuts to vital services like the NHS and social care, as well as income support for disabled and chronically ill people has already impacted their ability to access support in non-pandemic times. Now many are more likely to go hungry and struggle to access support as those undervalued, underfunded and understaffed systems are overloaded or decimated by new pressures related to the pandemic. We are also worried that the Coronavirus Act has downgraded the level of care by removing duty for local authorities to provide social care support for all who are eligible. Sickening reassurances that the virus will “only affect those with chronic illnesses, disabilities and people over 70” across all communication channels must end. This is not and should never be a reassurance. We should also reject ableist practices of service rationing prioritising “those most likely to survive or recover” and attaching Do Not Resuscitate orders to disabled and chronically ill people.
On the front lines of the virus, a disproportionate number of black and brown migrant women provide crucial healthcare to sustain the general public. This is also seen in care work, where 1 in 5 carers are born outside of the UK. Many carers and health workers are working with zero hour contracts which makes it extremely hard to calculate Statutory Sick Pay if they were to need it.
In times of crisis it is easy to turn in and focus on our own individual survival needs, but now more than ever it is essential that we centre those who experience additional violence; especially those who were already living in precarity before the pandemic. On Sunday 29th March, Priti Patel announced people experiencing domestic violence are ‘still allowed to leave home.’ To this we say, where will they go? And with increased police presence on our streets, increased police powers, who will feel safe enough to leave?
With this in mind, our demands are as follows:
- We demand that councils and the government ensure survivors have access to specialist support and safe housing. Although refuge spaces are limited at the moment, there are empty hotels rooms, student accommodation, short-term letting properties and empty houses that can be used for this purpose, without excluding the objective of creating more refuge spaces in the future.
- We demand a moratorium on further detention and incarceration, and the immediate release of people who are held in cells. While the work of Sisters Uncut focuses on women and non-binary people, our demand extends to everyone who is in prisons and in detention. So far over 350 people have been released from detention centres following a legal action, and 4,000 people will be temporarily released from prisons but this is not nearly enough; no one is safe until everyone is. We also demand safe housing and financial support for all those released; 38% of women released from prison in 2018-19 did not have an accommodation 2/3 of women released from prisons are homeless, with women being more likely to be unemployed than men on release and with women who have no recourse to public funds being at high risk of destitution.
- We demand a basic universal income and the suspension of rent and utilities so that households and survivors fleeing domestic violence can have the adequate means to meet their needs. The temporary eviction ban proposed by the government is not enough as it will still create a rent arrears crisis.
- We demand universal access to healthcare and care, housing and welfare (including an increase in carer’s allowance), as well as personal protective equipment and medical equipment. No one should have to give up a ventilator for someone else. No one should be cut from access to public funds or face hostile environment policies when trying to use NHS services and rent accommodation. Our NHS and services all need sharp and immediate increases in funds.
- We demand an immediate end to new police powers. Creating new ways to criminalise will only feed into our prison industrial complex. And as we have already seen  the same people who already are likely to be at the sharp end of policing are those who will be most likely to be subjected to police violence.
- We demand that these actions and positive changes that have happened so far go beyond the pandemic. These demands should transform existing responses to harm (especially by offering alternatives to the criminal justice and asylum systems), should inform the Domestic Violence Bill, legislation on sex work and funding allocated to the domestic violence and violence against women and girls sectors, as well as centres for women, trans and non-binary people. They should also ensure that everybody regardless of immigration status has access to healthcare, housing and welfare.
We have so much to learn from disability justice. We are worth more than our productivity. Care work has always been devalued in this society because it doesn’t create profit; and it needs to be valued now more than ever. We must ensure no one is left behind; and this is only possible through accessibility, interdependence, collective action and commitment.
At this time, Sisters Uncut chapters are not meeting in person – and we will continue to do this until it is safe. Many regions are continuing to organise online, and can be reached by email at [email protected]. This statement and demands were drafted by SEL Sisters Uncut and passed to other chapters before posting here, but also we recognise that many regions are focused on other, equally vital forms of organising in our communities right now. Because of this, this statement has been written as best as is possible with consensus but may not fully reflect all of the varying, complex and beautiful regions that exist within our organising groups across the country. Solidarity with all our siblings both in and outside of Sisters Uncut groups.
For those experiencing domestic violence and in need of support, the Domestic Abuse Hotline runs 24 hours a day and can be reached at 0808 2000 247.
The national sexual abuse support helpline remains open every day from 12-2:30pm and 7-9:30pm and can be reached on 0808 802 9999.
Please report all disproportionate policing to [email protected]
For other types of support, there are mutual aid groups popping up all over London and the UK – find one in your community here: https://covidmutualaid.org/.
No Woman Turned Away report 2019, Women’s Aid, https://www.womensaid.org.uk/women-escaping-domestic-abuse-left-at-risk-of-homelessness/
 The Domestic Abuse Report 2020: The Annual Audit, Women’s Aid,
 https://bid.eaction.org.uk/ReleaseNow and https://www.refugeewomen.co.uk/covid-19-yarls-wood/
Community Action on Prison Expansion have listed the ways in which we can be supporting those in prisons during COVID-19 and beyond: https://cape-campaign.org/support-people-inside-during-covid-19/
The London Renters Union is doing some incredible work organising a rent strike and challenging landlords and the government to suspend rent: https://londonrentersunion.org/2020/c19/
The Network for Police Monitoring and Undercover Research are documenting new police powers under the Coronavirus Act 2020: https://policing-the-corona-state.blog/
MinimisingPreventing and Dealing with Harm in COVID-19 Mutual Aid Groups Toolkit/Resource- kit https://wiki.queercare.network/index.php?title=Category:Covid