Social work concerns with the lives and livelihood of individuals, families, groups and communities to enhance social functioning and overall well-being of the people. Hence, well-being is pivotal to this profession. COVID-19 outbreak (followed by lockdown in India and many other countries) has posed a serious challenge to the profession in their strategies to work for the well-being of people. Social workers, like many health and behavioural health professionals, are concerned about the impact of COVID-19 and the lockdown on the well-being of the poor and other marginalised people they serve. Governments of all countries and international, as well as national, social work organisations, are grappling to come up with a suitable strategy to address the issue effectively and efficiently.
Social work as a profession originated in Europe and North America during the late nineteenth century with the volunteer efforts raising the pertinent social question—why was there increasing poverty in an increasingly productive and prosperous economy? Since then, the profession of social work has traversed with huge success in making global institutions and governments work on pro-poor services and make strategic interventions to reduce inequality, and thereby poverty. As a profession, social work has moved from a charity-based strategy to more of a developmental and empowerment strategy. After World War II, mental health also became an important area of intervention for social work professionals.
In India, modern social work entered with colonialism, and formal training in social work was started in India in 1936 at Dhorabji Tata School of Social Work at Mumbai. It had many milestones which influenced the paradigm of social work, like the movement by Jai Prakash Narayan of donating land and surname, Chipko movement and other movements to save environments, and lately work done by social activists like Medha Patkar, Aruna Roy, Anna Hazare and many others, who gave words like accountability, transparency and advocacy to Indian social work profession.
Today, during this pandemic, the profession of social work is again facing another paradigmatic shift. COVID-19 outbreak makes it difficult to work with groups and communities in the same way we were before. Working with individuals is the only space available for us to explore anymore. In recent days, prior to this outbreak, social work profession was challenged due to different socio-political and economic situations, such as a shortage in international development fund in India and several government rules and regulation which are not pro-NGO. The recent CSR bill pending in the Indian parliament may also take away CSR funding from local NGOs and Trusts. The existence of social work organisations with solely non-profit orientation is at stake. Secondly, today the situation is very different from when the profession first evolved in the West, and in India. Our world is now moving towards artificial intelligence and biotechnology. In this situation, social work profession is also forced to change its broad implementation strategies.
Against the backdrop of lockdown due to COVID-19 outbreak, several migrant workers are faced with a huge problem of food and shelter. Indian NGOs acted hand-in-hand with the government to provide food and shelter to the neediest people in urban areas. India Today reported on the basis of Central Government’s reply in Supreme Court that 37% people, out of the 84.26 % people who have been provided meals across India, were provided food by social work organisations. The report further shares that in Gujarat, social work organisations fed 93% of the people; in Andhra Pradesh, the figure was 92%.
Social work organisations also opened up relief or shelter homes for people. The analysis of the Central Government’s reply shows that around 10.37 lakh people took refuge in shelter homes provided by State Governments and NGOs. Of these, almost 39.14% are staying in camps set up by NGOs. In Maharashtra, 83.56% of homeless people are in camps set up by NGOs. The figure for the same is at 95% in Meghalaya. In other states, the figure includes Haryana (41.7%), Andhra Pradesh (41%) and Punjab (40%). Overall, there are six states where NGOs provided shelter to more than 40% of the people in shelter or relief camps.
Hence, it is obvious that the need for NGOs to supplement and complement government’s work is immense. They can be the catalyst during the time of such pandemic and disaster. Next phase when COVID-19 outbreak will start impacting rural India, the work of NGOs in combatting the challenge of poverty and hunger will be of prime importance for the government to achieve the SDG of “No Hunger” and “Zero Poverty”. So it’s obvious without a doubt that it is only NGO and development worker, who with the value of social inclusion and non-profit, can work relentlessly to pull out people from poverty and hunger. The government needs to support NGOs and frame policies so that NGOs get enough fund to do so.
Now when the existence of NGOs have been proved to be essential then one pertinent question that we need to ask to make its work relevant in the present situation is, whether the NGOs comfortable with their old strategies of empowerment and capacity building, be able to combat the COVID-19 outbreak, and the impact of the economic fallout of this pandemic. In the era of technological revolution, wherein bio-info technology is coming together with artificial intelligence, how should the social work profession adapt itself to prove its relevance?
Social work profession needs to make a judicious blend of its empowerment/capacity building strategy with artificial intelligence (AI) to fulfill its ultimate goal of promoting well-being during this outbreak, when social distancing is the new essential behavioural norms. More resources need to be invested in making a system with AI which can deliver the right awareness and capacity-building messages recurrently to hundreds and thousands of people more effectively and efficiently than any human being. The work of community mobilisers will be taken by more efficient AI machines with the help of digital platforms. Hence, social work education should include social usage of AI in their curriculum.
Social workers in collaboration with IT experts need to make systems that help them virtually reach out to different stakeholders and primary actors to ensure the well-being of the people. Social work profession will move its strategy from working with groups and communities to working with individuals beyond just medical social work. Work with communities and groups will shift to virtual interaction.
The conflict between new words like “social distancing” versus “physical distancing” will allow the profession to clear the concept. COVID-19 outbreak is very different from the earlier health disasters, like HIV-AIDS. The social stigma associated with COVID-19 will be very different from the stigma associated with HIV-AIDS, leprosy, cholera, etc. Hence, social worker has to work hard to keep a balance between physical distancing and stigma discrimination.
Social work professionals will also need to revisit their strategy of working on nutrition, agriculture and health. An integrated approach and a framework needs to be made by social work professionals to combat the COVID-19 outbreak and its aftermath. After some time when the outbreak will reach to a stage when testing will increase, social work professionals would need to support the drive of testing with new strategies using digital platforms and digital mass communication tools.
The work of social work will also continue when the vaccine is discovered. Social workers would have to ensure that the access to this vaccine is based on equality and equity. All people should get equal access (irrespective of rich and poor countries, caste, creed, etc.) to the vaccine, but vulnerable groups like senior citizens or people with weak immune systems should get the vaccine first. This need to be ensured by the government, and social workers need to advocate for it.
One of the major impacts of COVID-19 outbreak will be on the economy. We have already slipped into a major economic depression. Livelihood of the majority of the world population will be badly affected. Signs of mass unemployment are already showing up in America and India. Government and corporate resources will be insufficient to provide productive employment to the people. The demand and supply side of the economy will fall low. Social workers will again face the challenge of poverty and hunger. They will be forced to get into the charitable strategy to save lives. Hence, it will no more remain a white-collared job but a job which will be clothed in compassion and love. Social work professionals have to move out from their corporate setup to the field and provide service to the needy.
Another important aspect that social workers need to develop is psycho-social counselling. People will need a lot of mental support to adapt to the present gloomy situation and hope for the best in the near future.
COVID-19 outbreak will definitely ensure that the social work profession is relevant, but the profession has to learn, unlearn and relearn the way of its functioning.