3. Ethical responses

With the added creativity and flexibility that is usually required in working in disaster contexts, it becomes all the more important that social workers underpin all of their work with the core ethics of the profession. This links to the discussion above about trauma informed practice, whereby you need to be aware of the potential for your actions and practice to exacerbate trauma. These points also link to the learning in Module 1 around culturally appropriate support, and Module 2 around disaster capitalism and the need to challenge organisations and individuals that seek advantage from disaster situations. You are encouraged to revisit these sections and link this learning to this section.

Thankfully though, ethical awareness is recognised as fundamental to the profession of social work. The British Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics can be taken as a starting point for revising your knowledge around social work ethics, and thinking about their application to disaster working. The code of ethics outlines the values and ethical principles that social workers should be adhering to in all their practice, including when working in disaster contexts. The principles encompass many areas that have already been explored in this training, such as human rights, social justice, and challenging networks of exploitation.

Complete short task 5 in workbook (20 minutes)

In order to practice ethically, social workers must take the time to listen to and understand the experiences of those impacted by disasters. This may even include challenging or disregarding employer or government guidance at times when professional judgement and ethics demand it, similar to the requirement to step outside of statutory remits that was outlined above. Consider the following quotes from social workers captured in the preparation reading for this module (Banks, 2020):

We are running into many cases of depression, anxiety and homeless people, without medical plans and without family members. Worse still, on many occasions we have contacted many government agencies to seek help for our service users and we have no response. (Social worker, Puerto Rico)

I understand my country’s system is not as efficient compared to others, it has a lack of resources unlike other countries. But the system we have needs to step up further with or without Covid. As a social worker, it is not a work of one, it needs togetherness and cooperation from different agencies to help with the decision making. (Social worker, Brunei)

To what extent am I allowed to trust my common sense and professional senses and not follow these guidelines? (Social worker, The Netherlands)

In the circumstances outlined in these quotes, if the social workers involved waited for official government guidance before acting, or strictly follow the government guidance that does exist, then they may not be meeting their requirements as ethically practicing social workers.

There is a particularly resounding example of this stemming from the Covid-19 pandemic, related to the discharge of patients to care homes. In hindsight we know now that discharging patients to care homes who were Covid-19 positive during the first wave of the pandemic caused untold deaths within care homes, not just in the UK but in many places throughout the world. These patients were discharged in line with government guidance, most notably the rapid discharge of patients through the Discharge to Assess pathway. It is now worthwhile to reflect on the ethics around the decisions that were made at that time, as well as if/how they could have been challenged, including by social workers.

There are other examples from previous disasters where social workers adopting an ethically appropriate challenging stance could have prevented some of the impacts of a disaster. Following the Grenfell Tower Fire 2017, it was found that the lack of evacuation procedures for disabled residents was down to strict following of government guidance in this area that relied on emergency services helping these residents to exit the building. Therefore, it is worthwhile once again to reflect on how an ethically focused challenge to this approach could have been utilised to alter this approach, and what role social workers could have played in this.

Complete short task 6 in workbook (15 minutes)

Taking the time to listen to those impacted by disasters, hear about their experiences and understanding the communities they live in, will be central to determining the ethically appropriate response that you engage in. As in most aspects of this training, you are expected to integrate you knowledge, skills and experience of working as a social worker to assess the circumstances you are faced with.

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Section links

  1. Utilising social work theory
  2. Creative responses
  3. Ethical responses (current page)
  4. Organisational support
  5. Self-care
  6. Follow up task