How the Pandemic Might Change Social Work


Delve into the findings of a recent poll conducted by NPR/IPSO and a peek into the future is evident: two-thirds of Americans want the government to “take extensive action” to address the pandemic, including aggressive measures for containment.

Such a reborn belief in government has a profound implication for social workers. In an essay published in the April edition of Social Work in Public Health, Heather A. Walter-McCabe, a social worker and attorney, predicts that social workers will be a crucial part of the long term Covid-19 solution. Walter-McCabe writes that many living paycheck-to-paycheck are on the verge of being sucked into the divide that separates the middle class from the desperate.

“We are needed,” she wrote. “We are called by our Code of Ethics to practice our social work values: service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence. All are needed in this time of public health emergency.”

A Look at the Past

To look into the future of a post-pandemic America, consider the lessons of the 1918 influenza pandemic. That event killed 675,000 people (half a percent) in the U.S. landscape, with about a third of today’s population. There were behavioral changes around prevention, but not so much around systemic social changes needed to manage socially disadvantaged people.

For example, long term ingrained behaviors such as sharing a common drinking cup and spitting in public became socially unacceptable. But the opportunity afforded by the Spanish Flu to reinvent the medical and social services national fabric never materialized. With the value link between healthcare delivery and social work management now a given, Walter-McCabe said that social workers need to position themselves now as an advocate for systemic change.

Fundamental Change is Likely Underway

Clearly, the healthcare system has been stressed in the current pandemic. But ideas that have been around for a while may get traction, such as telemedicine and telesocial work.

As the NPR/IPSO survey also revealed, attitudes are changing about how the government should address public health issues.

“If there’s anything that could underscore the interdependence we all have, it’s this situation,” said Cornell University political scientist Suzanne Mettler in an April Discover interview.

Mettler thinks Americans will advocate for a more supportive safety net. She even speculates that the pandemic could be what puts universal government healthcare over the top as Americans lose their coverage due to rising unemployment. The enormous Covid-19 care charges that are coming due is nothing short of a financial tsunami.

Whatever form future adaptation takes, America will need its social workers. For sure, there are challenges. The tax revenue loss due to the pandemic’s economic impact is 29% for the average state, a reality that trickles down to local government budgets, including social services. However, 80% percent of healthcare payers are now addressing social determinants of health (SDoH) as the strategy offers excellent value.

A Plan for the Future 

In its April issue, Health Affairs published an article titled “Health and Social Services Integration Is Mission-Critical in the Coronavirus Response.” The authors cited several factors why social services expertise will be a vital solution going forward. These included:

1: Understand social factors that increase the risk of acute infection and disease transmission – Health care organizations and public health entities should collect and share data about individual risk factors. Organizations testing and treating individuals for coronavirus infection should urgently begin collecting SDoH data such as housing status, household crowding, inability to shelter in place due to economic or other constraints, occupation, and language barriers that limit access to pandemic information.

2: Target prevention, testing, and treatment to the most vulnerable, including through increased collaboration with human services organizations – Armed with better information about factors associated with increased risk of infection and severe disease, health care organizations and communities will be better able to target education efforts and distribution of scarce resources, such as masks and testing. This work will be most effective if conducted in coordination with human services organizations—such as homeless service providers, immigrant-serving organizations, and unions—that have the knowledge, expertise, and trust to help design effective responses.

3: Build on existing social care programs to help cushion the blow of the economic recession – Tragically, Covid-19 is not just a public health crisis but also a growing economic calamity. More people have already lost jobs as in the entirety of the last recession. The economy has shrunk by 30 percent. Calls to local 211s for food and rent assistance have skyrocketed. Data indicates that insecure and marginalized people and families will suffer the most, both economically and in terms of their health.

The current pandemic is not going away anytime soon, according to many leading public health experts. Comedian and actor Johnny Corn may have had social workers in mind when he offered his hopes for a post-pandemic society.

“We have a chance to do something extraordinary. As we head out of this pandemic we can change the world….A world where we are kind to each other. A world where we are kind no matter what class, …A world we don’t judge those at the food bank because that may be us if things were just slightly different….”


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