COVID-19 and Social Justice

Published on : April 17, 2020

About Social Work Responds
The Association of Social Work Boards, the Council on Social Work Education, and the National Association of Social Workers are committed to collaborating on the range of issues affecting the social work profession and the people and communities we serve in this ever-changing and unsettling environment created by the novel coronavirus, COVID-19.

Follow Up

Here are updates based on previous Social Work Responds e-mails and calls to action:

  • The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) and the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine participated in a panel discussion on the common impacts of COVID-19 on education of social workers and health-care providers. Click here to access the webinar.
  • The Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB): Students and program administrators can breathe a sigh of relief. ASWB’s recent research shows that no state’s regulatory requirements exceed CSWE’s temporary guidelines for reduced field hours. 

COVID-19 and Social Justice

The COVID-19 pandemic is a health and mental health crisis, to be sure. But it is also a crisis of social injustice, inequitably affecting vulnerable and marginalized populations that include, among others, individuals who earn low incomes or are incarcerated, homeless, in foster care, older than 65 (especially those in long-term care facilities), people of color, or undocumented. Social work practitioners, educators, and policy makers are working to address the needs of these populations despite the unpredictability of the virus's secondary impact on systems.

One example of COVID-19's impact is seen in a recent Pew Research Center survey showing that 27% of African Americans personally knew someone who died or was hospitalized from COVID-19, compared to just 10% of White and Hispanic people. Another example is the disproportionate rate of job loss among low-wage urban and rural workers.

Connecting underserved populations to care is a hallmark of social work. This is the kind of social justice that social workers, students, and educators work to address at all times, but it has new urgency during this global pandemic. The incredible strain on our health-care system and the widespread impact on our civic infrastructure has revealed existing (and often persistent) gaps in service.

As “essential” workers in responding to the pandemic, social workers are playing a key role in mitigating inequity. Social workers across the country are working tirelessly on the health-care front lines in hospitals and facilitating transitions and follow-up care to patients being discharged after recovering from COVID-19. They are helping families in crisis who have lost loved ones to the virus. Social workers are also implementing policy and advocating for increased resources to ensure that people receive necessary financial and safety net supports to survive.

Another way the social work profession meets its social justice obligation is through regulation. Public protection is the primary reason that regulatory boards and professional licensing have existed and continue to exist. This mission helps establish professional scopes of practice describing the services that a practitioner is competent to provide. Regulatory boards also investigate complaints and enforce sanctions against licenses when warranted, providing a safe haven for vulnerable consumers who have been harmed by unethical practice.

During our current pandemic, some laws related to licensing and social work practice have been relaxed temporarily to allow rapid deployment of the workforce and ensure continuation of services for those most in need. After the immediate crisis ends, public protection will continue to shape the regulatory landscape in our “new normal.”

The commitment to extending care equitably to all persons and communities starts in social work education programs but does not end there. Social workers, students, policy makers, and educators must also work to change the policies that perpetuate inequities in our health-care system as they work with families and patients affected by those policies.
In the last 2 months Congress and the White House have moved swiftly to enact three massive relief packages. These are intended to be instrumental in offsetting the harmful impacts of the pandemic—but more relief will be needed due to the massive scope of the crisis. Congressional leaders are developing a fourth relief package, and there will likely be more. Prioritizing funding for vulnerable populations is crucial. NASW and CSWE are also working to ensure that there is support for students and educational institutions, investment in interprofessional health-care workforce efforts, support for mental and behavioral health services, and funding for research.

Further changes in federal and state policies are needed to protect vulnerable populations during and after the pandemic. In addition, policy makers must ensure that economic recovery is a shared recovery for all Americans.

How We Can Help

To learn more about COVID-19 and its impacts on vulnerable populations, download Implications of Coronavirus (COVID-19) for America’s Vulnerable and Marginalized Populations.

CSWE offers a free research database of cultural adaptions of behavioral health interventions as part of the Center for Diversity and Social & Economic Justice’s curriculum resources in practice with diverse communities. These adaptations range from basic language translation, to the involvement of community members in the provision of services, to more fundamental restructuring of methods of care. Educators and social workers in any setting can benefit from this research and literature.

ASWB: If you have a desire to serve during this health emergency, exemptions exist in many states that allow for the provision of services by volunteers with or without licenses. Volunteering provides an avenue for you to share your gifts and talents—possibly even from the safety of your home.