Skip to main content

The double crisis facing social work

Dr Charles Mugisha says the Covid-19 crisis and systemic racism are inter­twined

Published by Professional Social Work magazine - 15 July, 2020

Social work in the UK is facing enormous challenges: Covid-19 and systemic racism manifested in the killing of George Floyd and many other black and ethnic minority people at the hands of the police.

According to the Office for National Statistics black, Asian and other ethnic minorities are far more likely to die from coronavirus. Black people in particular are four times more likely to die from Covid-19 than white people. Among frontline NHS, social workers, social care workers and support workers the difference is shockingly stark.

Despite accounting for just 20 per cent of the workforce rising to 44 per cent among medical doctors, 94 per cent of doctors and 71 per cent of nurses who died from Covid-19 were black and Asian. These statistics reveal just how devastating Covid-19 crisis has been for black and Asian people in the UK. 

What is surprising is the deafening silence of social work leaders and the naïve view that this double crisis will just go away. It took a long time for local authorities to figure out how social workers can practice safely during Covid-19 crisis. Towards the end of April most local authorities started to allow social workers to download WhatsApp on their work phones so as to complete some of the visits virtually and only children on child protection plans had to be seen face-to-face.

Some local authorities did not provide social workers with personal protective equipment (PPE) until the end of May and even those who got them had to go through a rigorous risk assessment which was monotonous and meaningless. Many social workers chose to buy their own PPE in order to avoid bureaucratic procedures.

One local authority in East Midlands appointed a social work service manager to coordinate PPE, an indication of how bureaucracy continues to be an issue in social work even during a global pandemic. There was a general agreement in the UK that all social work meetings be carried out virtually using conference calls, Zoom, Ms Teams or Skype but some local authorities banned the use of Zoom due to risks associated with hacking.

Issues of confidentiality were also raised by both social workers and social work clients especially when using conference calls. In some local authorities where conference calls are still used, some people not associated with the family would ring in and join the conference call. This created a crisis for some local authorities and an ethical dilemma for frontline social workers and other professionals.

With the easing of the lockdown and contradictory messages from the government, most local authorities now expect social workers to carry out face-to-face visits on all open cases. The challenge for social workers is that most of these families live in overcrowded homes where practicing social distancing during a home visit can be problematic or impossible.

Some families worry that social workers might be carriers of corona virus and even with PPE there is no guarantee that either party is safe. There are challenges of social workers wearing a mask when visiting a family that has no PPE.

Most black and ethnic minority families we work with do worry that they are still at very high risk of contracting Covid-19. Black and ethnic minority social workers too remain at high risk of contracting this virus. The horrific killing of George Floyd has reminded most vulnerable families we work with not only about white privilege but also about many black men that have died at the hands of British police and those that continue to be stopped and searched by the police just because of the colour of their skin.

Racism, injustice and police brutality are awful, because of the brain power and creative hours they steal from us. Even at its most benign, racism is incredibly time consuming. It is self-evident that racism is a public health emergency as much as the coron­avirus pandemic is, but it cannot be solved by devel­oping a vaccine, insti­tuting widespread testing or social distancing.

This is why as social workers we need to come together to support efforts led by anti-racist organisations across the globe to challenge systemic racism in our society and bring justice not just for George Floyd but for many other black men that have died and continue to die at the hands of British police.

Covid-19 crisis and systemic racism are inter­twined. This association shows how the dirty hand of racism rests heavily on public health and social care. We also know that Covid-19 has led to disproportionate economic impact on black and ethnic minorities, including job losses and some are already being threatened by debt collectors and bailiffs.

One of the factors that initially attracted me to the social work profession was its focus on solving problems related to poverty, discrimination and human misery. This emphasis led me to pursue a career in social work. However, when I qualified and started to practice as a social worker, I became increasingly aware that social work too, despite its fanfare about equality and social justice, still has a long way to go in terms of eradicating poverty, racism, discrimination and human misery.

I am still surprised that social work, a profession that speaks proudly about its allegiance to diversity, has serious issues with systemic racism. It still surprises me that most social work senior management positions are held by white men and with a very low representation of women and ethnic minorities. The same criticism can apply to social work academic departments in universities in the UK where there is an under-representation of black and ethnic minority lecturers and an absence of black professors.

My position is that in social work education and practice, anti-racist, anti-oppressive or anti-discriminatory social work has to be premised on real commitment to tackling discrimination at all levels.

I believe in a society that is committed to the eradication of all forms of inequality and an emphasis on equal opportunities in the work place. This includes the recruitment and selection procedures designed to encourage an increase in the number of disabled staff, an increase in black and minority ethnic people in the workplace, an increase of gay and lesbian workers and promotion of more women in senior management positions in social work.

Social work practice with black and ethnic minority children must be premised on the basis of cultural difference and not deficit. In other words, all steps must be taken to ensure that assessment and intervention do not hinge on negative stereotypes and assumptions need to be checked out. For instance, research indicates that there is always a tendency to assume a higher level of criminality among black people, which I think is a very destructive trap to fall into as a social worker. 

It is important for social work, NHS, police officers and other law enforce­ment professionals to recog­nise racism as a major issue. There is need to self-reflect on the impact of racism and their relation­ships with the commu­nity, accept account­ability and commit to true reform to address racism.

The Covid-19 crisis and issues raised by many anti-racist activists should be a wake up call to social work leaders who prefer to focus more on performance indicators and Ofsted rather than anti-racist social work practice that is client-centred and family focused.

BASW’s powerful statement on the death of George Floyd and the University of Birmingham’s social work department statement on challenging racism are lone voices which most social work leaders prefer to ignore.

I will end with Toni Morrison’s wise words in her 1975 speech: “The very serious function of racism… is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.”

Dr Charles Mugisha is senior lecturer in social work at Bukinghamshire New University

This article is published by Professional Social work magazine which provides a platform for a range of perspectives across the social work sector. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the British Association of Social Workers.