The role of social workers in society is clear for scholars and practitioners in the field. At least in theory. The mission of social work is to support and empower people in need, to encourage social cohesion and collective responsibility, to promote human rights and social justice, and to engage in actions of social change in order to enhance the well-being of people. But is this actually happening in practice? If so, when and what is the possibility for social workers to act as agents of change?
At the present moment, what forms of social change can happen when humanity is on lockdown, people are panicked, health systems are over-stretched and under-resourced? Or when individuals are isolated and already vulnerable communities become more vulnerable? What kind of social change is needed and how should it be pursued, when discrimination of the oppressed increases every day? When supporters of the far right are becoming more vocal? When authoritarian regimes capitalise on the crisis to take more control and to militarise the state?
Well, with all these complexities, there is still a place for social workers to fight for social justice and for the wellbeing of people. In my opinion, they are currently engaging in activism more than ever.
But what is activism? Generally, when scholars refer to activism, they associate the term with social change at social/political/environmental level (Fuad-Luke, 2009). As I have previously argued (Cioarta, 2019) social change is acknowledged in social work activism in many forms, some of which I discuss below. Additionally, activism in social work can be seen as a type of resistance by social workers (Greenslade et al., 2015), or as a political act (Gray et al., 2002).
But what type of activism do social workers do in times of COVID-19? As a PhD student studying this area, I would say almost every kind of activism. So far, for my information, I have watched online events hosted by the SWAN, IFSW, and other organisations. Additionally, I have followed news relating to social work activity and I am in touch with friends and social work colleagues, who are in the frontline. Although it might sound a bit flimsy, I have to praise the efforts and reactions of social workers in this critical situation. They proved themselves not only as professionals, but also as veritable defenders of the communities in which they work, and especially of the most vulnerable.
It is important to say this because the general ignorance regarding social workers’ contributions, and role in the current times is alarming and sad. After several weeks of the general lockdown across many states, I have seen a picture circulating on the Internet, lauding probably every essential profession in the present crisis (I have counted 13), naming them heroes, but social workers were not acknowledged. This led me to ironically conclude that yes, some heroes have the power to be invisible – as social workers are for the public all the time, not only in this period. Meanwhile, the Internet did provide other similar pictures and videos in which social workers are acknowledged, which is gratifying.
In any case, I believe it is important to point out the capacity of social workers around the globe to adapt to the present situation, because the pandemic experience is different in each state/context and, as a consequence, social workers have reacted differently. Webinars that I referred to earlier outlined some of the actions undertaken by social workers at the international level. For examples, one online event was “Social work intervention for social change in the time of Covid -19: International perspectives” which included a panel of representatives from six countries: USA, South Korea, Ireland, Scotland, Cyprus, and Spain.
Currently, social workers seem to be more connected than ever and it was obvious to me, from the webinars, that social workers are in many cases acting as the connectors. They are building alliances with other professionals, supporting and promoting grassroots responses, staying in touch with communities and families. They are working overtime, side by side with professionals from the health system. They are writing and considering new guidelines, policies for intervention, and advocating for people’s rights, services and resources. They are on the frontline, organising fundraising and donation campaigns and distributing goods for those that are most in need.
Social workers are making sacrifices, exposing themselves without proper facilities and PPE. In my home country, Romania, social workers employed in residential homes must stay quarantined at the workplace. Basically, the Military Ordinance adopted at the beginning of April obliges social workers and other professionals (care workers, medical workers, educators, psychologists, cleaning and kitchen staff) to leave their families (children, parents, dependent members) for a period of 14 days. In all this time, they have to co-exist with service users in residential care homes. The Romania Association of Social Workers (ASproAS) reveals that this situation had a negative impact on the mental health of social workers such as depression, anxiety, or high level of stress.
Nevertheless, social workers are getting creative and taking full advantage of technology and social media, as campaigns are increasingly organised online (donations, petitions, raising awareness). Additionally, some social workers are providing online therapy in order to support people affected by this collective trauma and take actions to prevent the phenomenon of domestic violence, which drastically increased since the lockdown was initiated. Social workers, community workers, and other activists are amongst those to challenge the increasingly racist and xenophobic reactions that have appeared on social media and in communities.
For me, and for others, it is clear that social workers have proved their importance and vital contributions to advocating for a just society, but I am not optimistic that policy makers will understand this. Of course, there will be voices that will argue that social workers failed to properly react to this situation. I believe that every sector failed. Critically, every state failed. Capitalism and neoliberalism failed by privatising health system and social services, by choosing profit over people’s lives. It is not really fair to expect a “proper” answer to a crisis for which no one was prepared. Although pandemic planning was going for years in the UK, austerity measures pushed this down on the agenda. Moreover, when we speak about a segment that is generally underestimated and strongly affected by the funding cuts, we cannot expect wonders.
To conclude, I believe that social workers can be considered as a true image of activism. Not only in the time of coronavirus, but every day. They fight for social justice and for those in need, even though their work is under-estimated and over-looked. They advocate for rights, they connect, they stand up for people, they mobilise themselves to find the best resources in everything. Activism in not an option anymore, it is a lifestyle, it is a duty. Paradoxically, this crisis might present us with an opportunity for people to understand the role of social work in society, but also for social workers to reclaim the true essence of social work – the engine of social change.
Ionut Cioarta, PhD Student in Social Work, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow
Cioarta, I., (2019). Activism and its Manifestations in Social Work Profession in Romania – Between Conceptualisation and Practice, Romanian Social Work Review, XVIII, Number 3/2019, 29-43.
Fuad-Luke, A. (2009). Design activism: Beautiful strangeness for a sustainable world. Sterling, VA: Earthscan.
Gray, M., Collett van Rooyen, C., Rennie, G., Gaha, J. (2002). The political participation of social workers: A comparative study. International Journal of Social Welfare, 11, 2, 99-110. doi:10.1111/1468-2397.00204
Greenslade L., McAuliffe D., Chenoweth L. (2015). Social Workers’ Experiences of Covert Workplace Activism, Australian Social Work, 68, 4, 422-437, DOI: 10.1080/0312407X.2014.940360