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The Covid-19 pandemic and implications for social work practice

By Babbot Muchanyerei  

As the world continues grappling with the novel coronavirus infectious disease (Covid-19), individuals from different walks of life are trying to outpace one another in coming up with a lasting solution to one of the deadliest pandemics in human history.

A health worker screens and sanitises visitors to prevent the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outside a hospital in Harare, Zimbabwe March 26, 2020. (Credit: Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters)
A health worker screens and sanitises visitors to prevent the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outside a hospital in Harare, Zimbabwe March 26, 2020. (Credit: Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters)

The influenza pandemic of 1918 (which claimed more than 50 million lives) still stands as a benchmark against which all other pandemics and disease are measured (Morens, Daszak & Taubenberger, 2020).

Although HIV and AIDS has also proved to be a human scare, the fact that it can be managed makes it as not deadly as the Covid-19, which is causing many deaths within the shortest space of time.

Scientists, religious persons, politicians, among others are all trying to provide explanations on how the pandemic can be curbed. Their efforts, though, have not yielded much yet, as more people continue to be infected and more deaths are reported almost daily. This writer explores, from a social work perspective, the global ramifications of this rambunctious pandemic.

A world caught completely unawares

Since this article neither attempts to give a detailed scientific explanation of Covid-19 nor its epidemiological history, the author will provide a surface definition of the virus. Simply put, Covid-19 is a coronavirus-associated acute respiratory disease. (Coronaviridae Study Group of the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses, 2020).

The virus which “was first identified in Wuhan, China, in December 2019 among a cluster of patients that presented with an unidentified form of viral pneumonia” (Peeri et.al, 2020:2), has spread more rapidly into proximal and distant countries.

The virus resembles those that circulate in bats and infect unidentified animal species sold in China’s live-animal markets (Morens, Daszak & Taubenberger, 2020).  

When the first pronouncement of the virus was made in China, not many people thought Covid-19 could turn into a deadly pandemic, hence its spread outpaced world preparations. Some world leaders assumed the virus would be easily contained just like the related coronavirus of 2003.

Alas, Covid-19 has proved several people wrong with no vaccine found to treat the virus thus far. Others were of the view that the virus will not spread beyond China. And when it did, many countries were found wanting.

Even those who misconstrued it as ‘a disease of the West’ started shaking when the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the Covid-19 as a pandemic on 11 March 2020 and warned that its effects can be far devastating in low-income countries particularly in Africa.

WHO’s prognosis should not be taken lightly given the fact that Africa is already grappling with other social ills such as poverty, unemployment, hunger and starvation, HIV and AIDS as well as other communicable diseases.

If Covid-19 were to affect the continent with similar ferocity as in Italy, China, Spain, among other countries, then millions of lives will be lost given the poor and dilapidated health state that many African countries find themselves in.

Curfews, lockdowns and quarantines

As measures to prevent further spread of Covid-19 intensify, many countries around the globe have implemented movement restrictions through travel bans, national lockdowns, curfews, quarantines or isolations. Methods such as quarantine and isolation are the oldest aimed at trying to inhibit the geographical spread of communicable diseases and infections (Cliff & Smallman-Raynor, 2013).

Videos of how governments, for example in India and South Africa, are trying to enforce these restrictions have been circulating mainly on internet and other forms of social media.

However, as Parmet and Sinha (2020:1) argue “these old tools are usually of limited utility for highly transmissible diseases, and if imposed with too heavy a hand, or in too haphazard a manner, they can be counterproductive.”

Questions have already been asked in some circles on the sustainability of such approaches especially given the socio-economic and environmental conditions that many citizens of less-developed countries live in. There is debate on how, for example, will individuals who are self-employed survive during the lockdowns.

More so, will those who already live in overcrowded shacks and communities be able to maintain the required ‘social distancing’ as well as the recommended hygiene patterns. Thus, issues pertaining to whether the current prevention measures especially in less developed nations are pro- or anti-poor need to be further explored, something beyond the scope of this paper.

Implications for social work practice

Social work practitioners remain essential service providers particularly during these trying times and must unequivocally play their role. They should, nonetheless, do so while being mindful of their safety.

A survey conducted by the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) with 1200 social workers published on 25 March 2020, indicated that respondents were concerned about their health and safety and highlighted that more support was required in this area.

Respondents also expressed concerns on the safety of their clients especially children and their families during the pandemic. It will be noble if other social work bodies and associations follow suit and support their members accordingly. It will also be motivating if social work practitioners were to be paid risk allowances during these difficult times.

Overall, social work practitioners will continue to be pivotal in providing, inter-alia, the following:

  • Education and information on the Covid-19 (prevention, symptoms, service providers, among other issues).
  • Psychosocial support including bereavement counselling.
  • Encouraging those with chronic conditions such as cancer, HIV and diabetes to adhere to treatment and live healthy as they will be more susceptible to Covid-19 if their immune system is weak.
  • Advocacy to ensure that services reach even remote and poor communities. These services do not only relate to those aimed at dealing with Covid-19 but basic needs as well, such as food, sanitation, clean water, among others.
  • Research on the effects of the virus, government’s response, gaps, challenges and possible solutions

Conclusion

Covid-19 has proved to be one of the worst plagues to visit the planet earth in recent times. Many people have been placed under restrictions and they are unsure if they have already been infected or will be infected any time. The world has been thrown into anxiety and panic.

Unusual solidarity has been witnessed even between political nemesis. With luck or some divine intervention, as many are beginning to believe, the pandemic will miraculously and mysteriously vanish.

But, if the virus is here to stay and a vaccine to treat it is not immediately found, then the world is doomed. Many people have lost their beloved ones, social life, source of income and means of survival. This is the time that the social work profession should stand high and contribute towards efforts to alleviate the anguish caused by Covid-19.

Babbot Muchanyerei (Social Worker, Johannesburg, South Africa. Cell: 0630320889; Email: [email protected])

References

Cliff, A. & Smallman-Raynor, M. (2013). Oxford textbook of infectious disease control: a geographical analysis from Medieval quarantine to global eradication. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Coronaviridae Study Group of the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses. (2020). The Species Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome-related Coronavirus: classifying 2019-nCov and naming it SARS-CoV-2. Available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41564-020-0695-z    

Morens, D.M. Daszak, P. & Taubenberger, J.K. (2020). Escaping Pandora’s box: Another Novel Coronavirus. Available: https://www.neju.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp2002106

Parmet, W.E. & Sinha, M.S. (2020). Covid-19: the law and limits of quarantine: The New England Journal of Medicine. Doi: 10.1056/NEJMp2004211

Peeri, N.C. et al., (2020). The SARS, MERS and novel coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemics and biggest global health threats: what lessons have we learned. Available at: https://academic.oup.com/ije/advance-article/doi/10.1093/ije/dyaa033/5748157                  

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