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Social workers have a critical role to play during lockdown


Dr Busisiwe Nkala-Dlamini is a lecturer in the University of the Witwatersrand’s Department of Social Work who has been involved in a number of HIV-prevention studies, including vaccines and microbicides, and with expertise in the effective establishment of community engagements in new research sites. Keitumetse Fatimata Moutloatse is a feminist social worker currently completing her honours degree in social work at the University of the Witwatersrand. She is the founder and chairperson of Black Womxn Caucus, a social movement that advocates against gender-based violence and its manifestations on a micro, meso and macro level. She was named the Change Maker of The Year 2019/2020 by the University of the Witwatersrand.

If we really want to disrupt the Covid-19 chain of transmission and want people to come out of lockdown victorious, we cannot ignore the psychosocial impact of this intervention.

On March 22, President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a 21-day national lockdown in response to the increasing threat of the Covid-19 pandemic. The intervention by South Africa’s leadership was hailed as critical in an attempt to disrupt the chain of transmission across South African society.

It is also said that the national lockdown presents an opportunity for reflection by all, especially decision-makers. 

On Monday 30 March, the president addressed the nation, informing us of the need to further intensify interventions in order to reduce and prevent further infections of Covid-19. This was just days after several ministers echoed the sentiments that “we are ready to deal with the virus”.

As members of the care sector who are service providers, we are often confronted with the harsh realities of the vast majority of people living in South Africa. We seek to provide a critical, yet often overlooked perspective to the nationwide interventions proposed by the National Command Council and the Natural Disaster Act of 2002.  

It is evident that we need to expand our parameters of public health by introducing psychosocial factors. 

In her recently published article, “Importance of International Social Work Amidst the Covid-19 Crisis,” co-author Keitumetse Moutloatse writes that, “The outbreak is exposing how our governments have reduced (resource allocation and lack of political will) the importance of the wellbeing of the citizens that put them in power. Public healthcare, access to information, access to water and sanitation, basic nutrition and housing have been the biggest concerns for countries affected by the outbreak, more so your developing countries such as South Africa.”

With increasing pressure put on the public health system, we ask the question again: what does “we are ready” really mean?

As social workers, we are in agreement that collaborative measures across sectors are paramount in order to “flatten the curve of Covid-19”. The government’s introduction of the 21-day lockdown intervention of confining people to their homes is using a medical model of dealing with diseases. This intervention will have an impact in controlling, managing, treating and later eradicating the virus.

However, a more integrated approach to this pandemic necessitates a psychosocial model of dealing with health conditions in contrast to the medical approach that suggests a linear strategy. The danger of divorcing any person from his/her environment provides a lifeless intervention. If we really want to disrupt this chain of transmission and want people to come out of lockdown victorious, we cannot ignore the psychosocial impact of this intervention.

The International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) theme for 2020 is “Promoting the Importance of Human Relationships”, which reiterates the importance of human relationships even as a form of intervention. By ignoring this critical aspect of intervention, we are neglecting several other pandemics that can occur, including an exponential increase in mental problems, an increase in domestic violence against women and children, apparent breakdowns in family and household functioning and further discrimination against the homeless. The disruptions as indicated by the president in his recent address have far-reaching consequences on the psychosocial functioning of many people.

The director-general of the WHO, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, is urging global leaders to prioritise and strengthen social work support and relief in order to minimise unintended distress as a result of the national lockdown. However, there is an apparent dismissal of a well-resourced and coordinated strategy in place to address several crises that will emerge. We strongly condemn the neglect of mental issues at this stage, especially with a country that has the highest inequality rates in the world, which poses a threat of an increase in several social ills during the pandemic such as high mental health issues, gender-based violence and poor service provision.

We are saying it is not business as usual and therefore we call for more integrated interventions that also prioritise the well-being of millions of people by making services within the care sector available using a multipronged approach.

Encourage and promote alternative methodologies of offering our services, and support initiatives that seek to bring normalcy during times of disruption. Ours is to bring services to the people. Allow social workers to do what we do best, prevent disruption of relationships. We are definitely ready. DM


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