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Covid shows need for a collectivist, not individualist approach in social work

Natalia Phillips says its time for social workers to work together against the social divisions, marginalisation of minority groups amplified by the pandemic

Professional Social Work magazine - March, 2021. Share your COVID-19 experiences here.

The pandemic changed all of our lives, the world of work, and all its sectors, changed in a split second. A clear division of who is an essential worker, and who is not, has become a subject of international debate. The rights and responsibilities of those whose roles are key to the effective functioning of society have suddenly increased without perhaps, considering about how equipped they are to handle, both physically and mentally what one could only call a humanitarian disaster.

This global crisis has been shaping everyone’s destiny around the globe. The statistics show that approximately 2.56 million people perished because of the virus worldwide as I write this (see here for up-to-date figures).

Sadly, the number continues to grow as we battle through yet another lockdown. This is not the only sad news. Because of the continuous strain on national economies, health and education systems, the pandemic will increase the impact poverty and social injustice have on wider communities worldwide.

As ‘front of the house’ workers continue their endless journey to save people’s lives, they are also exposed to a traumatising ordeal on a daily basis. In the UK, we see the NHS’s struggle, closed schools, and teachers and social workers needing to practise online. Everyone’s mental health deteriorates - we read multiple stories on ‘how to help your mental health’ during the pandemic.

But all of this is not only happening in the United Kingdom. Covid-19, without a doubt, has changed everyone’s life.

During these dark times, social workers continue to stand up against the obstacles caused by this virus. Remotely, or in person, they are present and at the very core of the support system which continues to be the reliable safety net for many. Yet, social workers worldwide ask themselves many fundamental questions.

Why is our work often overlooked or undervalued? Why don’t we have enough support to help others? These are significant questions and grievances. Nevertheless, we must not forget that their commitment drives not only the profession but the whole national and international support system through those challenging times.

When thinking of their work, what comes to mind instantly is the sense of duty, privilege and sacrifice that social work practitioners feel whilst conducting their responsibilities across the globe. Their commitment to providing continuous help drives nations forward and brings people together to stand up against this giant of a virus wreaking havoc around the world.

Their work in the social care sector, mental health services or child and family departments is invaluable. Yet it creates a melting pot of emotions - emotions of fear, helplessness, and resentment, but also hope for a better future, for both social workers and those who need our skills and support.

 The response to the virus across the world has been unsurprisingly varied.

 In the United States, social workers’ attempts to respond to the virus were strained by the inconsistent efforts of the government. Local governments were left to make their own decisions which created a lot of inconsistency in tackling the effects of the virus.

The differences in dealing with the aftermath of the virus, from supporting the homeless with outdoor heaters in Boston, to the sheer number of unoccupied hotel rooms in Las Vegas while the homeless were left in the car park, showed that people’s mindsets and attitudes to the pandemic were very different, often dependent on the factors such as location and the political party in charge of the state.

In Chile, on the other hand, this sanitary crisis brought social workers together by actively sharing their work experience and expertise. In other places, such as Greece, the pandemic was kept at a relatively low level due to the quick reaction of the government and the country’s strict approach to lockdown and social distancing.

The large-scale spread of the virus would disable the Greek health system due to the lack of funds for hospital beds. As it was in everyone’s interest, both the government and the people stood together to minimise the impact and protect the country from further difficulties.

In South Korea, the social workers’ solidarity and commitment to their duties led to them quarantining together with the residents of one of the residential centres. This ‘collective’ action emphasises the significant role of social workers as activists of change. It also helps realise that neoliberal social work, where the attention is drawn to the business-like model of service delivery, has failed.

As poverty and discrimination intensify during this pandemic, it becomes evident that the role of social work must also shift from an individualist approach to a collectivist one. The rise of social movements such as Black Lives Matter demonstrates that it is now the time to return to the collective action of communities and social workers working together against the amplified social divisions, marginalisation of minority groups and a rise of domestic violence and abuse of women.

It is also paramount to commit to act collectively to tackle mental health issues that, due to Covid-19, have multiplied among all members of societies worldwide.

Nowadays many of the conversations people have start with the qualifier "when everything goes back to normal…" However, what must be remembered is that the ‘normal’ is perpetual poverty and continuously growing austerity which affects people all over the world.

Thus, social workers need to continue helping retheorise the meaning of ‘normal’. The new normal could be the collective change - not the ‘business as usual’ that led the world astray and people wandering off the path of care and humanity.

Observing the events from around the world and the catastrophic consequences this pandemic has had on everyone, one could ask whether we are living through a humanitarian crisis or a crisis of humanity. The pandemic and the ecological disaster across the globe that goes hand in hand at these challenging times are changing the current way of life at accelerated speed.

It goes without saying that the mindset that accompanies the fight against Covid might play a part in a country’s approaches to its eradication. Each government faces the dilemma of who and what to prioritise and, at the same time, how to justify the decisions to the public. What might seem to be a deadlock, comes down to the combination of preference and political and economic interest.

In the U.K, social work and social care sectors have been neglected for many years and the Covid pandemic has only highlighted the mismanagement and underappreciation for the jobs within these sectors.

Budget cuts, lack of priority and investment in its people manifest themselves in high infection and death rates amongst social care service users as well as the workers. Difficult decisions made by the government, together with lack of consistency and support means that there is a further decline in our care system, manifesting itself in burnt out staff, low morale and helplessness felt for the cared for and their families.

The pandemic increased the sense of panic around the world. It accelerated the fear of loss of life, which is understandable. What it also showed is the real value and humanistic richness of certain professions in societies worldwide. Social work’s role as a leading caring profession continues to impact outcomes on people’s lives.

Therefore, the prioritisation of this sector is a must and a change within it is a necessity. The realisation that we all work better and more efficiently when we work together is an essential lesson to be taken from these challenging times. The collective, rather an individualistic approach, is the way forward in social work.

Only when we truly work together, as a team and as a community, can we achieve our goals and avoid risking leaving people behind - the most vulnerable people who look up to us and rely on our help. We, as social workers and aspiring social workers must also use our voices to defend the importance of the profession. We must continue speaking up for ourselves and those we care dearly about.

We will survive this unprecedented time and we will grow stronger. Let us just hope that the togetherness in action and hope is something we all could strive for, irrespective of who we are and where we come from.

Natalia Phillips is a MA social work student and a former teacher

Do you have experiences, thoughts or feelings of social work during the COVID-19 pandemic you would like to share? Click here to find out how