Three days after Columbia University classes were suspended in preparation for moving online, Columbia MSW candidates were also suspended from fieldwork. These students were still entering various hospitals, schools, courts, and shelters three days after the classroom had been deemed unsafe for them.
A period of three days is not long, in the long run. Yet the desire to show up every day to support our clients, however fatigued and overworked we may be, is typical of social work. A New York Times piece from March 12 2020 quoted Kristina Reintamm of Brooklyn Community Services calling for people to “offer a simple “word of encouragement” to front-line social workers who do not have the option of working from home” during the coronavirus pandemic (Paybarah, 2020).
Much front-line social work cannot happen from home. And unfortunately, this means that many social workers cannot work in the way to which they’re accustomed.
Our work is critical. We ensure that our clients get food, healthcare, shelter, counseling, benefits, referrals, and more. But right now, our clients might also get COVID-19.
If we were to be sick without realizing—or, alternatively, choose to tough it out because our clients need us, we could get our clients sick. And our clients could get their contacts sick. And our clients and their contacts could die—not only because they could spread it to those most vulnerable, but because our clients are the most vulnerable.
The novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is at least 20 times—and possibly as much as 50 times—as deadly as the seasonal influenza (Mounk, 2020). The estimated R0—the number of people likely to be infected by a single sick person—for this virus is 2.2 (Cascella et al., 2020). The disease spreads exponentially.
Imagine this (a visualization in which the coronavirus is actually less contagious than it is in reality): if one person infects two people, those two each infect two more, those four infect eight more, those eight infect sixteen more, those sixteen infect thirty-two more, and those thirty-two infect sixty-four more—128 people will be sick. And a 1% death rate (the lowest estimate, still ten times deadlier than the seasonal influenza), 25 people out of those 128 on average will need hospitalization and at least one will die.
We put our clients’ safety and wellbeing above all. This means that in the age of COVID-19, social work is social distancing. We can be creative about how we provide services—therapy over Zoom, check-ins on the phone, package drop-offs by the door, pickups outside—but we cannot provide them in person.
This is a call for social workers to stay home, as much as possible (in some states with quarantine policies, social service agencies can stay open for essential functions such as feeding people). But it is also why we are starting the Columbia Social Work Review Coronavirus Series on the Amsterdam as a platform for social workers and professionals in allied fields to talk about what it means to do the work in an age of social distancing. We would love to hear from you. Submissions are accepted through the submissions tab on cswr.columbia.edu.
Cascella, M., Rajnik, M., Cuomo, A., Dulebohn, S. C., & Di Napoli, R. (2020). Features, Evaluation and Treatment Coronavirus (COVID-19). In StatPearls [Internet]. StatPearls Publishing. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK554776/
Mounk, Y. (2020, March 10). Cancel Everything. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/03/coronavirus-cancel-everything/607675/
Paybarah, A. (2020, March 12). Coronavirus in New York: How to Help. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/12/nyregion/nyc-coronavirus-help-volunteer.html