1st Edition April 9th, 2020 Christian Kerr

The good fight: Reflections on social work and solidarity in the time of Covid-19 and beyond

International solidarity is not an act of charity: It is an act of unity between allies fighting on different terrains toward the same objective. The foremost of these objectives is to aid the development of humanity to the highest level possible.

– Samora Machel, President of Mozambique 1975-1986

Militaristic metaphors have always been a feature of the helping professions so it’s no surprise they currently abound in the midst of the current global health crisis, epitomised by calls to ‘rally the troops’ for ‘the war on coronavirus’ and so on. I have often argued against invoking the language of warfare in relation to social work’s struggles against oppression and injustice but have more recently come to appreciate the value of such language. It can unite us under a common cause while underscoring our shared experiences and concerns.

Social work and the military already share much common language: strategy, campaign, target, withdraw, engage, leadership, alliance, frontline and such like. This probably says a lot about how statutory social work has come to be conceived by those who do it and those who influence its form and function and it behoves us to think very carefully about how such unconscious reinforcement of militaristic language and concepts may shape perceptions of social work and influence our professional relationships. Is it possible to use such language while claiming to be a profession foundationally concerned with human rights and the advancement of higher ideals?

The above quote by military commander, politician and revolutionary, Samora Machel, shows the possibility of another, more hopeful, and therefore arguably more useful, function of military metaphors in social work. It’s perhaps unsurprising that Machel invokes the language of armed struggle, given his experiences in the armed Mozambican resistance. Here he alloys it to the language of unity and common purpose in pursuit of higher ideals to make a point about solidarity: that it is founded not in charity but in what we would nowadays call mutual aid. 

I’ve been thinking about these things in relation to calls from within the social work profession for the provision of adequate personal protection equipment (PPE) for social workers during the current health crisis. There have been calls for the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) and other practice leaders to do more to advocate for social work and social workers, particularly in relation to the understandably emotive topic of PPE. As a (sometimes critical) member of BASW I am grateful for its tireless campaigning on this matter and for its work in providing up-to-date practical and ethical guidance for practitioners – members or otherwise – currently dealing with, and supporting others to deal with, the myriad challenges arising from Covid-19. BASW has been a visible and vocal advocate for social work in the most difficult of times and deserves recognition for its decisive work in standing up for social work and for social workers in the current crisis. It’s difficult to see what BASW and other social work leaders could do in that particular regard and in calling for them to do more, for example in relation to PPE, we may actually be guilty of ascribing to them powers and responsibilities they don’t actually have. Public facing workers everywhere are dealing with the very same issue, despite the best efforts of their respective associations and unions.

Social work is a profession built on the promotion of social cohesion and collective responsibility in the service of all people, as set out in the International Federation of Social Workers ‘Global Definition of Social Work’, so I’ve always conceived of standing up for social work as standing up for the rights of interests of those we hope to support. In the era of Covid-19 and the many challenges the pandemic brings in relation to health, welfare and the ongoing, potentially lasting, erosion of legal protections, I’d take this further: we best stand up for social work by standing up for the rights of all people – public, professional, worker – during this crisis and beyond. 

The concept of mutual aid has really come to the fore during this crisis, though it is as old as human culture. In order to survive and live together, humans have exchanged goods, services, skills. As communities and societies developed, mutual aid saw people self-organising into craft guilds, trade unions, friendly societies, cooperatives and other civil groups and movements. The history of human progress is, arguably, the history of mutual aid. 

Mutual aid arises in response to perceived need, and very often in response to perceived threat. We are in the midst of a crisis of unprecedented scale and scope and mutual aid is on the map like never before, with citizen-led groups springing up locally, regionally and nationally, here and throughout the world. 

It has been said that mutual aid is built on the dialectical synthesis of autonomous individualism and and corporate collectivism. Another way of putting this might be to say joining with others to express and amplify our individual power while recognising and working with the tensions within the relationship between individual and group concerns. Every day as practitioners in our teams and organisations we stand up for the rights and interests of oppressed and marginalised people. Social workers often decry a lack of a strong collective voice. We’re not, according to this narrative, very good at standing up for ourselves. I wonder if that’s because it’s not in our nature, it’s not part of the deal. We fight for others, not ourselves. Perhaps we should stick to what we’re good at and stand up collectively, through association, first and foremost for the rights and interests of those we support and also those we work in partnership with every day. In doing so, we may find that others step forward to stand up and advocate for us too. That seems to me the essence of mutual aid. 

Solidarity and mutual aid are crucial to any crisis response. Once this storm has passed, the social work profession will no doubt enter a period of reflection and, from there, planning and preparation will be a key priority, for it’s highly likely this or something like it will happen again. We need to be better prepared to respond not only on behalf of social workers but on behalf of all those we stand with and for – public, professional, worker, citizen – from all disciplines and spheres, and from all walks of life.

I have previously called for a British Association for Social Work and for membership to be open to all citizens, because they have the major stake. There is unprecedented demand on health services in major population centres due to Covid-19. As the weeks go on, there will be increasing pressure on social care too. This may bring social care the recognition long called for by the sector, albeit in the worst possible circumstances. Whatever happens, I wonder if BASW may be even better placed to effectively advocate for the profession if it broadens its mission to advocate for the wider social care sector, or rather expands on the work it already does in that regard. How this could be done while preserving, in a non-exclusionary way, a space for professional social work to continue to develop and thrive? 

How about this: an association for social care, built on social work values and principles?  (Which, by the way, when you look at them aren’t so exclusive to social work but are shared by partner professions, disciplines and workforces which also have a public service ethos, often coalescing round a vision of individual and community wellbeing within a more just and equal society. It’s just that we social workers espouse a more foundational commitment to such values.) 

Such an organisation could make membership free to all citizens and, in doing so, make available and accessible the knowledge and resources used in social care and social work to anyone with a personal or professional interest. 

Such an association could provide, within that wider open membership structure, tiered subscriptions for social care workers and professional social workers, priced and tailored to the specific needs of each group. It could provide learning and development resources and opportunities for unqualified-yet-skilled social care workers – who may or may not wish to become qualified social workers – while preserving and building on the existing remit to develop and advance professional social work. 

Such an association could effectively be a shared, inclusive space to promote knowledge, transparency, accountability and understanding in social care and social work. Imagine the learning for all concerned. Imagine the possibilities for mutual aid. 

Such an association could also reach out and forge alliances with other unions and associations representing professionals involved in other sectors, such as health, education, therapy services, the legal profession and other academic disciplines, for, as I said, we share many common purposes, values and missions. Part of the unique contribution of social work within a social care association of the sort described would be experience and expertise in engaging communities and connecting their concerns, rights and interests to the concerns of professionals, workers and thinkers in the various disciplines and areas of work. Such a coalition could amplify the voices of those professionals and members of the public who play a vital role in holding government and other powerful actors to account.

In essence, a union of concerned citizens forming part of a coalition of the concerned, advocating for hope and positive change in a complex, quickly changing world. 

Imagine that.

Christian Kerr, Social Worker.