COVID-19: An Open Letter to Social Workers

COVID-19: An Open Letter to Social Workers

Dear social workers

I hope you have been staying well and taking care of your loved ones during the pandemic COVID-19.

However, just taking care of ourselves and our loved ones is not enough given the unprecedented crisis that we are collectively facing today due to COVID-19. The notion of ‘professional’ and moreover the value of ‘humanity or humanism’ that we have voluntarily attached to our work demand more than protecting ourselves and our loved ones. It is our professional, moral responsibility to think beyond ourselves and our loved ones and take the initiatives to help those hundreds and thousands of people who have been directly affected because of COVID-19. Our responsibility also includes thinking about those millions of people who are at potential risk – physically, economically, mentally, and socially – due to COVID-19.

Therefore, I write this open letter to you – in fact to ourselves – with both regret and hope. Regrettably, at the time of writing this open letter, the live tracker of John Hopkins University confirms the total cases of COVID-19 have reached to 471,518 globally. It also reports a total global death of 21,293 due to COVID-19. Yet, there is hope on the other hand as the same live tracker of the John Hopkins University confirms the total global recovery of 114, 444 who were infected in the last few months.

Personally, I am extremely concerned about the above-mentioned figures. But, my regret and hope are not only limited to the figures that John Hopkins University presents. Rather, these have a deep connection to my ‘professional self’. Here, it is relevant to briefly explain why so. Since 2007, soon after completing my undergraduate degree in social work, I have proudly celebrated my status as a professional social worker in the hope that I will be there when societies will need my professional services most. And this ‘professional self’ has been suddenly shattered in the backdrop of the pandemic COVID-19.

Last week I was still teaching master’s level social work students in Australia and on one occasion the students asked – ‘so, what is the role of social work at this tumultuous time due to the pandemic COVID-19’? My students are not alone with this question. Every time I scroll the pages of social media, I have often found someone with social work background asking the same question. Unfortunately, there is, to the best of my knowledge, no tangible answer from social workers and social work bodies until now.

It is also relevant to personalize this very context. My mother, nearly 70 years old and living in a rural part of Nepal, spoke to me via Facebook Messenger two days ago. Given the COVID-19-related unprecedented death rate mostly among elderly people, she is already in a state of fear, trauma, and depression. As an elderly person, she is not only worried about herself but also about her elderly husband, her children, and her grandchildren, and then about her relatives as well as the community of which she is part. She asked me – ‘aren’t there [expert] peoples to help persons like her and her relatives’? I found to an extent that question was directed at me.

The impacts of COVID-19 are not just personal, and neither only physical. Check out the expert’s opinions and emerging evidence, the COVID-19 has impacted almost all spheres of people’s lives. As many economists have argued, we are already on the brink of economic collapse. Several economists furthermore believe that the result of economic collapse will devastate the job market and will likely hard-hit those who are in the lower strata of the job market, poor, refugees, and several other vulnerable groups.

In addition, in the backdrop of the pandemic COVID-19, early evidence is suggesting that the healthcare system is about to fail in countries, which are developed and enjoy advanced economies such as the USA, the UK, Italy, and Spain. We cannot imagine what if the situation remains the same for a little longer will happen to those nations, such as in Asia and Africa, in which the healthcare system almost does not exist. In addition, there have been already some signs of emerging new racism and new vested politics. And hence, I am worried not only about today but also about tomorrow.

The more I am thinking about this moment the more I am asking questions – what my own role is being a professional social worker in particular and what is the role of the profession in general? It is not something that I ignored in social work responses to COVID-19. Nevertheless, to the best of my knowledge, what I have found until now is that social work is mostly engaged in ‘reporting’ and ‘awareness building’. My own lived experience during the 2015 earthquake in Nepal rejects this limited approach of social work’s ‘reporting’. During 2015 earthquake in Nepal, international social work – combined individual and institutional – heavily reported on the 2015 earthquake in Nepal. Eventually, many of them also published and presented about the 2015 earthquake in Nepal on international platforms. The only right thing that was not done was to engage in actions to help the survivors of earthquakes in the long run. That was an act of ‘romanticizing of social work by international social work’ at the national level. The crisis that we face today is global, threatening the entire humanity; therefore any ‘romanticism’ will be deemed to be unethical and inhuman from the social work perspective itself. There is no option for ‘romanticizing’ but to engage innovatively, ethically, and responsively with the intention to bring positive impacts and results for all of us.

As I wrote earlier, I am also hopeful for the profession of social work as it is about humanity. And this humanity connection begs for our responses at the time of the pandemic COVID-19. Time and again, despite some constraints and weaknesses within the construction of the social work profession, social work has taken the side of humanity in solidarity with those who are vulnerable and required its services most. Today, the number of vulnerable people is not in the hundreds, not even in thousands but in millions. They desperately need our services.

So, how do we (re-)create hope for them? I believe at this moment social workers of the world, despite their ideological differences, must organize themselves in solidarity with a common goal to combat the pandemic COVID-19 and its related social, economic, physical, and mental effects. Hence, I believe, the followings are some initial steps that world social workers can do. Again, these are my personal suggestions and should be treated as flexible and modifiable. We should, in my opinion,

  • Liaise with potential individual social workers and all international, regional, and national social work bodies to establish a high-level global task force to respond to COVID-19.
  • This high-level global task force should immediately gather and organize social workers who have experience in dealing with and responding to epidemic and pandemic situations.
  • Given the impacts of COVID-19 are multifaceted affecting all aspects of our lives, the high-level task force should invite and engage expertise from other disciplines. At the very beginning, collaborating and working together with epidemiologists, human power in public health, and data scientists, for example, will equip us with initial insights. Later the list of external expertise could be expanded as the need arises.
  • The high-level global task force should engage in a fast-track approach to clarify what is social work’s positionality during this ongoing pandemic, as well as clarify how world social workers will engage in the short-term and long-term.
  • The high-level global task force should address the social workers globally informing them about the task force’s vision and mission statements and appealing to them to collaborate and when needed to volunteer to their national and regional bodies. Where there is no national social work body, the high-level global task force can support them to establish a national task force.
  • The high-level global task force should finalize its plan as soon as possible and immediately translate the plans into actions. Given the spontaneity nature of the plans and actions, call potential social workers who have the expertise to volunteer.
  • Given this is a very new and unique encounter for the profession of social work, the high-level global task force should continuously engage in collecting evidence and proactively improve the responses based on evidence when needed.
  • While doing all these, the high-level global task force should explore the opportunity to make itself sustainable as its existence will be in need for the long term given the impacts of COVID-19.

It is my personal conviction that this is the right thing to do at this moment being a social work professional. This is also the right thing to do if we really want to essentialize the meaning of international and global social work not just in the words but also in actions.

In the end, I am well aware that this ‘present’ soon will be the ‘history’ and then the heirs of social work will ask us what we did when the global societies needed us most. I do not need to remind you how our founders in the post-industrial and post-world war era did the right thing by laying the foundations for professional social work and helping those who needed their professional services most in those times. And now, it is our time to bear responsibility and advance the profession by doing the right thing.

In solidarity!

Raj Yadav


March 26, 2020

#socialwork #Coronavirus #COVID-19 #Socialworkresponse #insolidarity

(Note: This post is a reference from the Facebook profile of Dr. Raj Yadav. This blog has taken permission to re-post this open letter).

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