Social work during a health pandemic

Published in Features on 2 Apr 2020

Lena Dominelli, Professor of Social Work at the University of Stirling, Chair of the IASSW Disaster Intervention, Climate Change and Sustainability Committee, and Chair of BASW’s special interest group on social work’s place in disasters (SPEDI), shares her experience of supporting social workers in other countries and what they can do to protect themselves, people they support and the health service. 

This is an abridged version. The full article is attached, which includes some tips on self-help and resilience. 


The new Coronavirus that originated in December 2019 is now called Covid-19. Its first known epicentre was in Wuhan, China, where strong measures were taken to contain the virus before any country fully understood its characteristics. It has now evident in 177 countries and its global spread has been termed a ‘pandemic’ by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Dealing with a pandemic requires concerted international action as well as national and local action. The pandemic places social workers in the frontline and poses many questions for them. Key to this are those concerning what is the profession’s role and purpose in fighting the pandemic; and how can social workers support those affected by the virus? 

I have been supporting social workers in several countries address these questions since early January 2020, and am sharing my insights into what I have learnt through this process to help others in our profession offer support – practical and emotional, without endangering themselves, their families or others in their communities.

Anyone can succumb to Covid-19, so I do not offer a magic bullet, only advice that you as social workers should then contextualise and adapt to your specific situation using your critical reflective capacities and dialogue with other stakeholders while operating within social work values and ethics. This is where transdisciplinary, multiagency working in a Covid-19 team offers many advantages including access to relevant knowledge and peer support and supervision in uncertain times. Some of this advice you will have heard before if you have read the newspapers, watched television, listened to radio, engaged with reliable social media outlets, or referred to the websites of reliable organisations such as WHO or your own country’s
disaster advice centre, often provided by your health service provider or emergency management agency.

What advice can social workers give to help people keep themselves, their families and communities safe?

Not all health professionals agree on what should or must be done in specific situations, and so there is variability in national responses depending on geography, political arrangements, socio-economic contexts and other factors. Given a shortage of resources ranging from disposable masks to ventilators and hospital beds, another important consideration is that of targeting resources at those needing them the most, i.e. those most vulnerable to viruses, or those seriously ill.

The resource factor is also important with regards to testing and hospital bed availability including in emergency rooms and intensive care units. Those who are healthy or not showing the symptoms of Covid-19 should stay away from test sites and hospitals, especially emergency rooms, to protect these resources for those who are ill and not waste the scarce time health professionals need to deal with those urgently requiring their assistance. Thus, the following points are precautionary and to be contextualised to become locality specific and culturally relevant. However, they are recognisable in many different places because there is consensus about basic guidance. These guidelines are:

  • Frequent washing of hands with soap and water (20 seconds or more with running water and soap, or if this is absent, hand gel sanitisers effective against viruses (not bacteria).
  • Not touching your face, eyes, nose or mouth. This hinders the virus from getting into your body and making you sick. This must be observed by those touching contaminated surfaces.
  • Social distancing. This helps to contain the virus and reduce its spread in communities (2 m/person).
  • Frequent disinfecting of surfaces touched or coughed on. These should be those effective against viruses (Alcohol based sanitiser with 60% alcohol or more will also work).
  • Self-isolation for 14 days to avoid spreading Covid-19 if you have been exposed to it; suspect you are carrying it, even if showing no overt symptoms; or have been confirmed as carrying it, but not sick enough to warrant hospitalisation or other measures that may result in your being placed under mandatory quarantine.
  • Providing information to facilitate tracing contacts whom you may have infected if you have been suspected of carrying the virus or confirmed as having succumbed to it.
  • Wearing protective clothing, including eye goggles, one-use disposable masks and disposable gloves to protect the public and yourself from Covid-19 if offering them services.

What can social workers do to support health professionals and those affected by Covid-19?

Social workers have their own tasks and responsibilities in a pandemic, though these are not often spelt out, as health professionals are assigned the tasks of caring for people, defined primarily in terms of medical care and needs. However, there is also the social care needed – to keep family and communities together despite social distancing, and continue with social care services already being provided including undertaking needs assessments, facilitating access to home helps or specialised services, safeguarding children and adults, reuniting families, and mobilising communities around social issues. In a pandemic, their activities can be increased to cover:

  • Referring people to other services, especially health care ones.
  • Utilising teleservices/internet/video/social media connections to reduce isolation and stay connected.
  • Gatekeeping access to services, especially scarce ones and explaining why this is necessary.
  • Finding and mobilising resources at community level.
  • Community public health education essential to explaining how people can take care of themselves, their loved ones and communities and why.
  • Supporting people with emotional needs, including curbing fear and anxiety.
  • Providing counselling and loss and bereavement services.
  • Helping people to identify how to keep themselves safe, especially in social distancing initiatives.
  • Promoting solidarity and social justice within safe parameters regarding close contact.
  • Advocating with and for people to ensure that social justice and human rights are respected.
  • Looking after their own health and well-being (self-care and supervision) as social workers.
  • Translating government policies to ordinary people in easy to understand language.
  • Supporting health professionals in doctors’ surgeries.
  • Supporting children in schools, including devising small-group activities that avoid close contact and exposure to Covid-19.
  • Supporting children to access food and other essential goods and services, especially during school closures.
  • Supporting older people to access food and other essential goods and services.
  • Helping children and families access Covid-19 testing facilities when appropriate.

In undertaking any or all of these activities, social workers must protect their own health and well-being.

Professor Lena Dominelli
Professor Lena Dominelli

About the author

Lena Dominell is an experienced educator, practitioner and researcher and has published extensively in the fields of sociology, social policy and social work. Lena argues passionately for the realisation of human freedom from social inequalities and injustices in her writings, policymaking forums and communities seeking to change their social and physical environments. Her research interests include: climate change and environmental social work; globalisation; social and community development; social change; women’s well being and welfare; motherhood; fatherhood; child well-being and children’s rights.