On March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared the outbreak of the novel coronavirus a pandemic. Even before the announcement, governments and communities have been on high alert as the number of those infected with the virus rises exponentially, seemingly on a daily basis.
With rapid changes in safety guidelines—and as misinformation spreads—it’s challenging for many to manage their health and mental well-being when faced with so many unknowns. For many public health crises, medical professionals such as doctors and nurses are often on the front lines, helping to diagnose and treat those impacted as well as providing essential guidance on how to stay safe.
Social workers sit in a unique position during a public health crisis, one that’s often overlooked. From offering emotional and mental health support to educating the larger community, their role entails navigating what is often a complex and evolving situation.
In the aftermath of a natural disaster, for example, social workers are essential in connecting their clients with local agencies or Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) resources, in addition to offering mental health resources following such a traumatic event.
In the past, social workers have been a critical part of the response to the outbreak of HIV, Hurricane Katrina as well as the 9/11 terror attacks.1 Social workers have also played an important role in addressing systemic issues, such as health inequities, racism, lack of mental health care and economic disparities.
But how can social workers provide support during a worldwide pandemic, such as the one caused by the COVID-19? Many individuals are self-quarantining or practicing social distancing, and local, state and federal governments are continuously issuing orders that have a major impact on people’s daily lives. This makes for a number of challenges for social workers to address.
Navigating an Evolving Situation
During a situation like this, one of a social worker’s major responsibilities is to help their clients find the resources and support they need. This can be a challenge with constant changes in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines on staying safe and receiving medical attention. However, staying up-to-date on new agency and government resources being made available to the public can also prove to be very difficult.
Staying informed about the latest updates on COVID-19 might seem confusing at best, but social workers are critical to ensuring clients get accurate information to help them navigate an extremely complex healthcare system and understand doctor or CDC recommendations. For each individual client, particularly those living with chronic diseases or mental illness, there are many complicated and nuanced questions that relate specifically to their health, work and family situations. In some cases, a social worker might need to help a family sign up for health insurance or Medicaid, or they might need to advise them where they can find support if they can no longer return to work and earn a paycheck. By being a source for clarity and personalized guidance, social workers can reduce anxiety for clients and help them find the digital and in-person resources they need.
Stopping the Spread
While helping individuals and families navigate the complexities of healthcare and community safety guidelines is an important part of a social worker’s responsibility, it is also essential in educating the community at large. Giving clients clear guidance is just the first step.
As the spread of misinformation grows and as many individuals refuse to acknowledge the full scope of a crisis, social workers can step up in schools and other community organizations to bridge that knowledge gap. The National Association of Social Workers has compiled a list of websites that can serve as resources for social workers in a number of fields, including those in healthcare services and those that are part of faith-based groups.2
One important part of that is supporting quarantine and shelter-in-place orders and educating groups about the importance of following them. Another is by teaching fact-based hygiene habits to help prevent individuals from getting sick when they are out in the community. By taking on this role, it is again essential for social workers to understand and know the current CDC and local safety guidelines and be able to communicate their importance to others.
One of the most challenging aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic is the uncertainty. The length and the severity of the virus’s impact is still not fully known, and the development of a vaccine could still take at least several months.
Those who are anxious or impacted by the pandemic might need outside support in prioritizing self care, which is where social workers play another essential role. They can serve as a neutral sounding board, working with clients to develop coping strategies to manage anxiety and provide non-sensationalized information. Whether it’s the disruption to their normal routine, the stress of having children home from school, or being worried about loved ones in isolation in quarantined cities or elder care facilities, this stress can severely impact mental wellbeing.
Cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavioral therapy can be useful tools in this situation, but with many people working from home and social distancing encouraged, telemedicine and video calls can be a key tool for social workers to use.
For children, healthcare professionals and those with existing medical conditions, a situation such as this can bring even more challenges. Having a personal connection with someone who can guide them through personalized self-care best practices can make an enormous difference in their lives. These can range from common recommendations like exercising regularly and getting plenty of rest to more specific ones such as taking a break from the news.3
A Community Response
Clear guidance is critical on both an individual and community level. Social workers are essential in offering support to those impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, but every member of a community has an important role in helping others and following the CDC’s recommended safety precautions.
As the New York area adapts to a growing number of confirmed cases, learn more about Yeshiva University’s response to COVID-19, including on-campus classes and student services, and watch a message from University President Ari Berman.
1 Retrieved on March 16, 2020, from ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5731072
2 Retrieved on March 17, 2020, from socialworkers.org/Practice/Infectious-Diseases/Coronavirus
3 Retrieved on March 16, 2020, from cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prepare/managing-stress-anxiety.html?CDC_AA_refVal=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cdc.gov%2Fcoronavirus%2F2019-ncov%2Fabout%2Fcoping.html