Social workers have been where we are before, in the middle of a crisis. The social worker profession was formalized and expanded during the 1918 Spanish Flu, the last deadly worldwide disease outbreak. And before the Covid-19 and Spanish Flu pandemics, the first social work dates back to the early 20th century. Then, social workers labored to prevent and end medical events such as tuberculosis and venereal disease outbreaks and World War I’s social and health impact upon society.
There are five things to appreciate about social workers during the latest Covid-19 pandemic.
1: Social workers are part of the frontline solution: As noted, social workers have dealt with threats from public health calamities for over 100 years. And just as medicine has evolved to these challenges, so has social work. Today, social workers are advocates to bring down barriers such as food and housing insecurity, social isolation, unemployment, and mental illness. Such social determinants of health (SDoH) can account for up to 80 percent of health inequities – and make a pandemic worse. Through their long experience, social workers know that solving such health challenges requires individualized solutions versus a one-size-fits-all approach. With the growing trauma and behavioral health impact of Covid-19, social workers, along with physicians, nurses, and other hands-on caregivers, are vital members of the frontline Covid-19 response team.
2: Social workers already have a personal relationship with at-risk populations: To stop the pandemic, mitigation and control must be focused on disadvantaged populations. While the pandemic affects people of all incomes and socio-economic levels, the SDoH socio-disadvantaged – especially those of low income and minority status – have mainly borne the disease’s brunt. Social workers already have relationships and experience in building trust with these clients. According to Jonathan Fielding, M.D., professor of public health and pediatrics at the University of California, Los Angeles, leaders are struggling to get the messaging around Coivid-19 “right” and “The way that officials, leaders, and experts talk with the public could mean the difference between life and death.” Social workers have the street credibility to convince at-risk people to adopt anti-pandemic behaviors.
3: Social workers rely on a code of professional ethics for unbiased decision making: Social workers make many small decisions to improve or solve big challenges for their clients – and its difficult work. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) established a Code of Ethics – which was last reviewed and re-approved in 2017 – to help social workers make unbiased decisions. The code’s starting point is honoring the NASW six core values:
– Social Justice
– Dignity and Worth of the Person
– Importance of Human relationships
The Code of Ethics notes that “Ethical decision making is a process. In situations when conflicting obligations arise, social workers may face complex ethical dilemmas that have no simple answers.” Combined with pandemic guidelines for prevention and containment, the NASW Code of Ethics offers a reliable pandemic response platform.
4: Social workers know how to adapt to change: A reality of the current Covid-19 pandemic is that social workers, who provide face-to-face, hands-on care, must navigate around a medical response that advocates isolation. Social workers also have to protect their health and that of their families. Social workers are used to a rapidly shifting social and political environment. Recent client/social challenges have included dealing with mass opioid addiction, unauthorized immigrants on the southern border, and delivering preventative services with a rise in racial, ethnic, and homophobic client stigmas. The challenge of adapting solutions during the pandemic is no different. For example, social workers have quickly adapted to telehealth solutions. As lawmakers and other policy authorities work to find answers, social workers offer a tradition of practical experience.
5: Social workers rely on data to achieve better outcomes: As social workers are realizing, data analysis can indicate patterns of need, predict probabilities of human behavior, and identify variables useful to make decisions. The use of interconnected data, especially among different agencies, is a powerful tool in coordinating care for better outcomes at lower costs. While some large cities have developed proprietary databases, platforms are also available (such as Eccovia’s ClientTrack) that can be customized. Such data-driven insight is a safe tool to help social workers identify SDoH intervention opportunities, especially during the pandemic.
William Haseltine, Ph.D., a longtime professor at Harvard Medical and Public Health Schools, recently cited the contribution of social workers as essential personnel in combating the pandemic:
“History has taught us how critically important social workers can be in the face of a public health epidemic. They were the messengers who first warned us about the spread of tuberculosis in Victorian slums. They were the ones to first understand and advocate for AIDS patients in the earliest years of the epidemic. Today, they are the ones who can help us push back the boundaries of this epidemic and help prevent it from spreading across our country.”