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WSWD blog: Promoting the Importance of Human Relationships in the face of Coronavirus

BASW member and PSW for Adults in North Somerset, Ric Orson, on World Social Work Day

I think it is safe to say that the Coronavirus outbreak has somewhat overshadowed World Social Work Day. Despite this, it has never been more important to emphasise and reflect on its theme.

As we face an unprecedented set of circumstances certain to disproportionately impact the most vulnerable groups in society, it is vital that we, as social care professionals, take a lead in ensuring that people’s human rights (including their right to human relationships) are protected.

Socially marginalised groups including older people, people with serious health conditions and homeless people, are the most likely to be seriously affected by the outbreak. They are also the people we support every day.

Many already rely on social care services, as well as their families and other support networks, to get by. Others will likely need our support if they are unfortunate enough to contract the virus.

The most isolated in society will be told by the government to isolate themselves further by the weekend. Moreover, people who they rely on for support may no longer be able to support them if they, themselves, are self-isolating.

Some care homes are already closing their doors to all visitors to prevent the spread of infection, leaving residents increasingly isolated from family and friends. We must not underestimate the potential effect of this enforced isolation.

The impact of this kind of crisis on the national psyche is huge. We will, I predict, see an increase in people who need mental health support as a result of the anxiety and paranoia ensuing from the relentless media coverage.

Some of us may go through the trauma of losing people we know and love. Depending on how the NHS copes with the crisis, doctors will potentially have to make decisions in relation to who lives and who dies. 

All these issues raise serious considerations in relation to social work practice and people’s fundamental human rights, not least the right to life (Article 2 ECHR), the right to respect for private and family life (Article 8 ECHR) and the right to liberty (Article 5). Further powers and restrictions affecting our basic rights will be announced as the Coronavirus Emergency Bill in introduced.

Measures will undoubtedly have a significant impact on our civil liberties which, up until now, we have taken for granted.

As social workers, we have a duty both to take measures to protect the vulnerable in society, but also to ensure restrictions on people’s human rights are lawful, necessary and proportionate. We must speak out when the balance is wrong.

The implications in relation to the Human Rights Act 1998, the Mental Capacity Act 2005, the Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards, the Mental Health Act 1983 and safeguarding services are at a level of complexity and scale we have never previously encountered.

It is important that we continue to do what we do best, embracing the messy stuff to balance our duty to protect with our duty to empower, always ensuring that we are guided by our social work values and relevant legislative frameworks.

It is equally important that we focus on our own mental wellbeing and support each other as colleagues. The emotional impact of this crisis should not be underestimated and ensuring appropriate supervision and support is in place is more important than ever.

We may need to make a more concerted effort to do this using various forms of communication as increasing numbers of people work from home.

In situations where our human rights are unavoidably impacted on public health grounds, it is vital that communities come together to mitigate the impact and ensure the basic needs of vulnerable groups are met.

The very language of social distancing and self-isolation is the antithesis of what we ordinarily promote as social workers. Innovative methods of communication such as Skype and social media will become increasingly important and we have a responsibility to ensure clear contingency plans are in place for everyone we support, including vulnerable people in our personal networks and communities.

It is heartening to see the emergence of mutual aid groups across the country, but we need to do all we can to ensure no one slips through the cracks, and safeguard those who may be vulnerable to abuse from these emerging unregulated and unpoliced networks.

We are at risk of having to self-isolate at a time when we need each other more than ever. Being able to maintain social contact with colleagues, family, friends, neighbours and carers is essential for people’s wellbeing, both physically and mentally. 

All of us, not only as social workers, occupational therapists or adult social care workers, but as human beings, need to think creatively and compassionately to support each other, harnessing resources in our communities, to ensure our human relationships are maintained.

Ric Orson

Principal Social Worker for Adults

North Somerset Council

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