/ 13 April 2020

Social workers are an untapped resource to address the psychosocial effects of Covid-19

Talking is caring: A woman displaced by the fighting in Bor county
Many social service professionals are contributing through civil society organisations that have been doing an amazing job in filling the vacuum by providing food parcels, hygiene and medication supplies to vulnerable people, and in some cases counselling support. (Andreea Campeanu/Reuters)


In President Cyril Ramaphosa’s first speech about the Covid-19 pandemic, he neglected mentioning social workers as part of the response team. In his most recent address to the nation, he considered the socioeconomic issues and some relief for businesses and households, but still no mention of social workers and their role in addressing food insecurity and the psychosocial implications of Covid-19. This is indicative of the broader lack of understanding of the role of social workers in providing essential services in disaster management.  

As a nation, we need a psychosocial strategy for the coordination and support of psychosocial services.

We have already seen reports on the heightened levels of gender-based violence during the lockdown. Fortunately, given the knowledge of high levels of gender-based violence and child abuse in South Africa, these services are still in operation. But they are not classified as essential services. 

Besides the increased levels of gender-based violence, which the president and his teams have acknowledged, there are numerous other psychosocial issues people confront. Social and physical distancing could be triggering mental health issues among the general population such as heightened levels of distress, anxiety, fear, stress and depression, which may also exacerbate the situation of people with pre-existing mental health issues. Many people are stressed about where their next meal will come from and how they will pay their bills.  

Workers on the front line require trauma debriefing and assistance with post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms. Families who have lost loved ones to Covid-19 require bereavement counselling and support in dealing with their loss.Many people may be dealing with stress as a result of job losses, living in confined spaces with no access to outdoor areas, changed routines and constrained daily activities. 

Social service workers have valuable skills that would be useful in addressing these psychosocial problems. Social service workers should be at the front line (with due regard for safety) to provide public education and awareness on the prevention of transmission, assist in ensuring food security and give psychosocial support. South Africa has about 35 000 registered social workers as well as auxiliary social workers, community development workers, psychologists and alternative healers. They could have been called upon and used to assist in managing the long queues for grant payment; identifying vulnerable households for livelihoods support; providing support to care workers and those infected by Covid-19, counselling people with mental health problems,as well as providing a myriad of other social services. 

Many social service professionals are contributing through civil society organisations that have been doing an amazing job in filling the vacuum by providing food parcels, hygiene and medication supplies to vulnerable people, and in some cases counselling support. The government is working with some nonprofit organisations, but the lack of coordination creates glaring gaps that remain unfilled. 

Many of us receive appeals every day from numerous organisations who are legitimately requesting funding for Covid-19 emergency relief — masks, sanitisers, food parcels, hygiene hampers and the like. Why have funds from the departments of social development and basic education for school feeding schemes not been redirected to nonprofit and community based organisations doing excellent work on the ground?

It is concerning that the department of social development’s food relief line will only provide relief to the poorest of the poor, people with chronic illnesses and a family that has a member who has Covid-19. The financial means test for a food parcel is that a household’s income must be less than R3 600 (including grants). If 10 people live in one household that has two grandparents who each receive a grant of R1 800, the entire family must survive on those grants. 

  • What about those who are usually not considered poor, but currently have no income? 
  • Beside food parcels, how do people pay for water and electricity and for other basic needs?
  • How do people communicate and stay informed in a lockdown if they have no data? What are the psychosocial implications of this increased isolation?
  • What has been developed to address the psychosocial support gaps for panic, fear, bereavement, PTSD, suicide, depression? 
  • How do survivors of gender-based violence get help if they are not allowed to move beyond their house and speak on the phone within earshot of the perpetrator? Are there safe houses available for them beyond shelters, which are limited in capacity? Are there steps to remove perpetrators instead of victims?
  • What steps have been put in place to protect vulnerable children? 
  • What protective gear has been sent to nongovernmental organisations providing care services?
  • Have policies and procedures for infection management in residential facilities (such as homes for children and senior people) and for food distribution been developed and communicated? 
  • Have residential facilities received additional financial support from the department of social development to function under these circumstances?
  • What additional support are nonprofit and other organisations receiving from social development to survive and provide effective services? 

In the same way the government has deployed the military and health workers, there is a need for a coordinated, well-planned strategy from the department of social development to deploy resources through social service workers nationally.  

The government has a free social service think tank available in the form of The Association of South African Social Work Education Institutions, which has 250 academics who have offered their support. Academics should also be galvanised to assist in the development of policies and protocols to operate effectively in this time of pandemic, as well as to conduct research on people’s needs and psychosocial implications of Covid-19. It would be useful for the government to consult nonprofit organisations on the ground regarding their needs and how best to support them. The C-19 People’s Coalition, an alliance of social movements, trade unions, community organisations and nonprofits, have been trying to fill these social service gaps. 

We recognise that this is a relatively new domain and we are all trying to do our best to deal with this pandemic. Nevertheless, it is critical that different constituencies providing social services be brought together to collectively think of solutions, in particular social service responses, to deal with the psychosocial effects and exacerbation of inequality as a result of Covid-19.

Shahana Rasool is a professor in the department of social work at the University of Johannesburg and vice-president of the Association of Schools of Social Work in Africa