The role of social workers during the COVID-19 pandemic
Published: 24 July 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic is having a significant impact on the lives of many people in Australia and globally. Social workers, along with other health professionals, are deeply concerned about the effects of the virus, and the economic fallout from this, on individuals, groups, families and the broader community.
Social workers play a vital role in society, especially in times of public health crises and national emergencies. The social work profession is over 100 years old and during this long history we have been there to support the response to and recovery from world wars, pandemics, global and regional crises and recessions.
Through it all, social workers have worked side-by-side with people affected, driven by a deep commitment to social justice and human rights. Every day, social workers are on the frontline of the pandemic response, connecting clients with a wide range of health and social supports and services to address the devastating impacts of COVID-19.
We are in a unique position to promote disease prevention efforts, including disseminating accurate information from trusted sources, and to help address anxiety and other concerns that are arising as a result of this public health crisis. Social workers can also play an important role in supporting the community to promote mental health and in assisting people to maintain social connections.
Our work is vital in ensuring that people receive the economic and social supports available to them. We know that the impact of this pandemic has been amplified for the most marginalised in our community.
The outbreak of COVID-19 has been a dual challenge for the community sector in which many social workers work. As the economic effects of the social restrictions have taken effect, there has been an increase in demand experienced by community sector organisations. The most stark have been the demand for emergency relief, including ensuring food security, housing security and income security, for those excluded from income support schemes. It is no exaggeration that these services have been life-saving measures for some people.
Social workers report that all the services they work in, are facing increased demand: most notably mental health, housing and family violence services. All areas of the community sector are experiencing added pressure through this increase in demand for services, in costs incurred for delivering those services and in working through the restrictions as they perform their work. For example, many organisations have had to suspend group-based services and close community ‘drop-in’ facilities, finding innovative ways to deliver these functions. Similarly, organisations who supplement their income through social enterprises such as culturally specific catering services, have been forced to close or reduce the enterprise through a combination of social restrictions and cancellation of orders.
The Australian Association of Social Workers has been advocating for social workers and the people we work with on multiple fronts to ensure access to services, including the expansion of telehealth and government supports.
In the context of increasing uncertainty and heightened stress, social workers’ fundamental commitment to human rights and protecting the most vulnerable will continue to be of critical importance throughout this period.
Social workers have an appreciation for the inherent value and worth of every human being and the importance of social connectedness and human relationships. This is what makes us unique as a professional community.
We are guided by the core values of service to community. Social workers have much to contribute to how we collectively deal with COVID-19, with particular consideration for how the experience may amplify issues such as family violence, mental health and homelessness.
Across every field, social workers maintain a dual focus on improving human wellbeing and identifying and addressing any external issues (known as systemic or structural issues) that detract from wellbeing, such as inequality, injustice and discrimination. Social work takes a strong value position on systemic discrimination.
Social workers recognise that while COVID-19 affects all members of society, as we have seen domestically and internationally, the impacts are far worse for people from marginalised and disadvantaged groups.
Indeed, the responses to COVID-19 has demonstrated the extent of the inequality underlying many societies. In the Australian context, the initial period of crisis was characterised by a fear, anxiety and general sense of panic about the coming events.
The uncertainty as to the severity of the pandemic manifested itself in many ways, most notably the mass buying and hoarding events that best reflect the collective sense of fear that gripped Australia. This event highlighted the unequal nature of crisis response given so many Australians did not have the means to buy food and key resources weeks in advance. Social workers recognise that COVID-19 is inherently not just a health problem but also a social one.
Social workers question, challenge and fight to ensure that those most vulnerable around us are well supported. We learn from history, and the fears and misinformation of previous pandemics to challenge stigma and discrimination.
We also recognise that the pandemic also provides an opportunity to review what kind of society we want to be, and as a crisis it is a pivotal opportunity to create long-term and sustainable change.
The AASW has advocated for long-term policy actions, including the creation of a social safety net that supports people to move out of poverty, instead of entrenching it, mental health reform that is person centred and human-rights based, and action on climate change and the Sustainable Development Goals.