Upholding ethical behaviour and human rights during Covid-19

Published on 2 Jun 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 reflections on upholding ethical behaviour, social justice and human rights. 

Upholding ethical behaviour, social justice and human rights are crucial during the Covid-19 pandemic. In the UK, the national regulatory bodies and professional associations –  British Association of Social Workers (BASW), Scottish Association of Social Workers (SASW), BASW Cymru and BASW England; and Northern Ireland Association of Social Workers (NIASW) – provide ethical guidance.

Ethical principles

Important ethical principles include:

  • Doing no harm – not to others, not to yourself.
  • Supporting human rights, social justice and entitlements to services
  • Taking care – not endangering yourself or others, for example, take social and physical distancing precautions.
  • Active listening
  • Using the precautionary principle (causing the least harm when facing an ethical dilemma)
  • Treating people with respect and dignity
  • Being kind and compassionate, using discretion within existing guidelines where appropriate
  • Reducing sources of fear by explaining issues clearly and simply and staying calm
  • Building individual, family and community resilience

Ethical dilemmas

Ethical dilemmas occur when one ethical principle is contradicted by another. This can create emotional distress among social workers and produce heart breaking moments when practitioners cannot deliver much needed services. These include safeguarding children from physical and/or sexual abuse and neglect; protecting elders from financial abuse; alleviating poverty; and addressing grief and loss, including their own if service users, family and friends succumb to Covid-19.

An inability to support people during moments of loneliness and isolation intensifies their feelings of powerlessness, and worrying about possible next steps. Social workers draw upon generic skills to tackle such issues, but Covid-19 compounds these, turning what they face into complex dilemmas, lacking easy solutions. At such points, peer support, debriefing, including critical incident debriefing if a crisis erupts during unbearable tensions, come into their own. Some social workers may experience post-traumatic stress and require psychosocial support. Employers should be compassionate, understanding and provide whatever support is needed. Such support may be required for a long time. Remote interventions create their own challenges for a profession rooted in face-to-face contact. Social and physical distancing can be experienced as disempowering.

Ethical dilemmas range from practical to profound concerns. Whether to undertake a home visit to investigate safeguarding issues exemplifies a profound one, requiring a specific risk assessment including PPE availability. If the risk assessment suggests, ‘do not visit’, think of how remote discussions might work for the individual/family and what other sources of information you might access to corroborate your assessment, for example, neighbours, GPs, community nurses and community police. If you continue to feel uncomfortable about visiting, discuss this with your peer group/line manager. Peer group support might provide new ideas for consideration. Your line manager has a duty of care towards you, responsibility to address your concerns and deliver services where possible. They can obtain advice further up the command chain. If there is a union, their officers may help.

A practical dilemma is illustrated by a family under lockdown awaiting their Universal Benefit payment, but lacking money for food and proprietary medicines like paracetamol and Calpol which are useful in reducing fever for children. The social worker wants to help but has no agency resources or funds available. The local food bank has run out of food. Some social workers have responded to this dilemma by giving families some of their own food, or asking volunteers working with charities to cover such needs, leaving items on the doorstep (staying 2 m away if the doorbell is answered). These responses can help an individual family, but the situation highlights a structural problem with Universal Benefit that must be solved differently. This requires an urgent policy change that professional associations, unions, and local officials can place before politicians. Local authorities can set aside funds for children ‘in need’, using some of the extra £1.6 billion Covid-19 funds available.

People with more funds worrying about supermarket shortages may hoard supplies when they find them. This is usually counterproductive, because supply chains are more robust than individuals think. Replenishing supplies by following normal routines is more likely to keep the shelves stocked and ensure that everyone has what they need. Limited space for storing food may cause some to spoil before use. Collaboratively, people can exercise ingenuity to find other solutions for unavailable items. Social workers can facilitate such collaboration by reinforcing existing skills and building connectivities to reduce fears, even remotely.

Crises can bring out the best in practitioners, and present opportunities for widening the practice portfolio. Social workers can improvise, learn from each other, explore lessons from overseas, and use reflective, critical and innovative capacities to assess insights, devise new solutions and enact mutual solidarity globally. Locally, through co-production, innovations can be tailored to provide locality specific and culturally relevant solutions.

This is where green social work (GSW) perspectives also apply: encourage caring for each other and planet Earth to avoid future pandemics. This is linked to environmental degradation and destruction of animal habitats, often to mass produce food. These practices have facilitated animal to human transmission of Covid-19, abetted by national rather than global perspectives and responses. Such interactions are likely to provide the source of the next health pandemic as they have over the past 100 years.
Working together as one world, we can defeat Covid-19, and remember, you are an essential, if sometimes undervalued worker!

Codes of ethics

Code of ethics - British Association of Social Workers (BASW)

Ethics in social work: statement of principles - IASSW and IFSW

Guidelines for social workers during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Social work during a health pandemic.

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.

Contact: lena.dominelli@stir.ac.uk