Social workers’ critical role in the times of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the important role of social workers in society. Gone are the days of social stigma attached to the involvement of social workers.

Rand Aid social workers Sue Prior, Debbie Beech and Ulricka Beukman fulfill the role of Community Care Co-ordinators in the retirement villages at Rand Aid Association. It is the job of the social workers to co-ordinate the follow-up of any issues that may affect the quality of life and general well-being of residents in all the facilities run by the 118-year-old non-profit organisation. Both Wedge Gardens and Thembalami Care Centre also have their own specialised social work staff.

“Today, social workers are recognised as important role players in managed care, private practices and all areas of industry. They work tirelessly towards long-term social solutions and are recognised for their abilities to rebuild better, more inclusive and more stable societies.

“During the COVID crisis, the role of the social worker was recognised anew, with many hospitals and healthcare professionals appointing social workers or referring patients to them. This is because social workers have been trained for just these conditions – they are professionally equipped for a rapid response in times of crisis and to navigate emotional chaos, offering their skills to support people’s own coping processes.

“Good psychosocial care, in the midst of a pandemic, can help people identify and build on their natural resilience.  Core features of a social worker’s assistance include access to information and emotional support as well as linking people to resources to aid existing coping skills. Social workers at every level have the skills and capability to not only address safety for today but to address grief and loss, build awareness and combat myths about the pandemic,” says Sue.

She explains that any disease outbreak or pandemic brings with it not only physical suffering for those infected, but also feelings of panic, shock, loss, grief, shame and suspicion in the community at large.

“With COVID, the enemy is invisible, making it even harder to cope. One is also vicariously affected through the losses that family and friends may have experienced – such as loss of life, loss of family income, loss of identity, interruptions in schooling and access to healthcare. Everyone has been affected on some level and the world will never be the same as before.”

She says that many people find it difficult to acknowledge their fears and losses. When asked what was lost in the past year of pandemic life, the answer often starts the same way: “I can’t complain.” “I’m one of the lucky ones.” “I know I should count my blessings.”

“People are, of course, comparing their losses to the loss of life of 2.6 million people around the world during this pandemic, which makes it harder to talk about smaller losses. Losses such as the loss of precious time with family and friends, cancelled travel plans and missed family milestone events.  These may not sound like much, but mental health experts agree that all loss needs to be acknowledged and grieved for future well-being.

“A core function of the social workers at Rand Aid has always been to anticipate, assess and address psychosocial needs. Many hardships can be minimised or averted by frequent, open and supportive communication.

“Social workers use skills such as active listening, crisis management, anger de-escalation, problem solving, decision-making support, boundary setting assistance, advance care planning, validation of family connectedness, role affirmation, clarifying, reflecting, interpreting and reassuring. Moreover, they can help a person to make sense of the many questions and tribulations that life brings,” says Sue.

“Social workers provide a safe space for people because they are committed to upholding human rights and dignity, which includes the basic right to privacy, self-determination and, above all, to confidentiality,” she says.

At Rand Aid and other care facilities, social workers also advocate on behalf of residents and families and provide information and reference on a wide range of topics, including medical aids, resident rights and how to connect with local resources.

Furthermore, they are instrumental in empowering residents to mitigate isolation, boredom and loneliness. In a culture that typically views aging as a period of decline, the Eden Alternative philosophy adopted by Rand Aid in the last few years, asserts that no matter how old we are or what challenges we live with, life is about continuing to grow.

“It is well accepted that care facilities and retirement villages with social workers are in a much better position to deal with and also to prevent crises. Thus, at Rand Aid, the social workers form part of a multi-disciplinary team and work alongside the medical staff to improve quality of life.

“They realise they work with people in physically, emotionally and socially vulnerable circumstances, many of whom are approaching the last chapter of their life. Alongside the doctors, the nurses and allied therapists, the social worker is not only part of a team examining ways to prevent and minimise physical pain, but also to work tirelessly to prevent, soothe and facilitate the healing of emotional pain.

“The social worker also has an important role in promoting personal change and growth. Every person learns, grows and changes until they come to the end of their life path. Social workers understand the need for each person to remain active and involved citizens, not to stagnate and to experience a life worth living. They can coach and guide to make life more rewarding and to find one’s purpose in life.

“When asking: ‘What does a social worker do?’ you will hear that the most satisfying and rewarding part of the work is to be a force for positive change and to be able to make a difference,” says Sue.