You are here

Policy and Funding Support for the Essential Role of the Social Service Workforce in the COVID-19 Response

Nicole Brown's picture

COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on individuals and communities, particularly those that have been historically marginalized. National social service systems in many countries have been stretched to respond. As a result, there is increasing recognition of the important role of social service workers, particularly in the areas of child protection, family strengthening, psychosocial support and mental health. To meet the heightened call for a range of services, many governments and non-governmental organizations have increased funding to hire and train more workers and have passed legislation to ensure continuity of services. 

Covid-19 Ethiopia
Tirusew Getachew is a social worker at a quarantine centre in Ethiopia, where her work includes needs assessment, family tracing and family reunification. UNICEFEthiopia/2020/NahomTesfaye

Global advocacy for recognition as essential service providers
Multiple global entities have advocated for social workers and other social service workers to be considered essential service providers and are raising awareness of their daily work.

The Statement from U.N. Secretary General António Guterres and a letter from the Group of Friends of Children and the SDGs, endorsed by more than 160 member states, highlight the importance of holistic COVID-19 response plans that ensure well-being and healthy development of children. It calls on national governments and multilateral institutions to work immediately to strengthen ‘child protection in COVID-19’ response frameworks and to provide sufficient donor support to implement these responses effectively. The statement calls for several actions including to: Designate members of the social service workforce (SSW) as essential to prevent and respond to child protection risks; Provide them with appropriate Infection Prevention and Control training, and equip them with personal protective equipment in accordance with World Health Organization (WHO) guidance and national laws; and Ensure that resources are available for national governments and humanitarian actors to fully implement these responses, recognizing the traditional gaps in child protection funding in past humanitarian aid expenditures.

The Joint Leaders’ Statement from global organizations working to end violence against children “calls on governments, the international community and leaders in every sector to urgently respond with a united effort to protect children from the heightened risk of violence, exploitation and abuse as part of the broader response to COVID-19. Governments have a central role to play. They must ensure that COVID-19 prevention and response plans integrate age appropriate and gender sensitive measures to protect all children from violence, neglect and abuse. Child protection services and workers must be designated as essential and resourced accordingly. Working with and supporting governments, our collective response must include: maintaining essential health and social welfare services, including mental health and psychosocial support; providing child protection case management and emergency alternative care arrangements; ensuring social protection for the most vulnerable children and households; continuing care and protection for children in institutions; and communicating with and engaging parents, caregivers and children themselves with evidence-based information and advice.

As an example of advocacy and interagency coordination, the Ugandan government issued a declaration that district probation and community development officers should sit on district intersectoral COVID-19 task forces across the country. These staff are primarily professional social workers, and they are meant to highlight issues of child protection, gender based violence, disability and psychosocial support so that these issues are addressed by the COVID-19 task forces.

National policy support
In many countries, social service workers are advocating for their work to be considered essential so that services continue. Many professional associations and organizations have been successful in attaining recognition by governments for social service workers as frontline service providers in order to continue and adapt social services. 

Under the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Act 1988 (Act 342) in Malaysia, social service workers are considered among essential service providers. Funding has also been allocated for ongoing training and acquiring new skills and knowledge to meet new and increasing needs. 

In states and cities throughout the United States, social workers, case workers and other social service workers have been declared as essential service providers and given flexibility in determining continuity of services. 

When the government closed all social services in Romania, the social work association successfully lobbied ministers to overturn the decision. Then, mobile teams of local law enforcement and social service workers worked in tandem to increase door deliveries of basic food and hygiene products to vulnerable groups, including single parent households, Roma populations and children with disabilities. 

The National Association of Social Workers Uganda brought together many organizations to advocate for social service workers to be recognized as essential service providers and to obtain PPE and an allowance for those working at the quarantine centers. With an expected 2,500 people returning to Uganda from other countries, there is great need for psychosocial support at the quarantine centers. To assist with emergecy mobilization of qualified first responders, the Association is compiling a list of qualified social workers who are ready and able to respond. When the Child Helpline closed during lockdown, the Association and partners also advocated for it to reopen and be recognized as an essential service. 

The South African Council on Social Service Professionals, representing social workers and child and youth care workers, actively advocated to relevant ministries to ensure properly licensed practitioners are considered essential service providers to be able to continue meeting the needs of communities; safety of workers is taken into account by employers; and a permissive work environment is created to ensure maximum service excellence. They worked closely with the Minister on development of policies and directives for social service workers to continue services during lockdown. “I would like to pay special tribute to all our service workers, and particularly our social work professionals, all support staff, as well as professional volunteers, who are out there every day, working hard to ensure that services to the most vulnerable continue, whilst dealing with the personal health threat of contracting the coronavirus,” said Western Cape Minister of Social Development Sharna Fernandez

Guidance for Social Workers During Covid-19 Response in Malawi, developed by the Association of Social Workers in Malawi and UNICEF, provides categories of essential social services that must be continued to meet the needs of vulnerable people during COVID-19 and the essential promotive, preventative and responsive functions of the social service workforce. The guidance sets out instructions and key principles related to COVID-19 for all social workers and para-professionals in Malawi, and their employers in government and non- governmental organizations to safely support children, families, and communities; raise professional concerns and questions; and request appropriate support and guidance from employers. 

In the Philippines, Proclamation No. 922 authorized hazard pay to government personnel who physically reported to work during quarantine for COVID-19. Public social workers were among the cadres of workers and personnel eligible to receive hazard pay for each day they were physically reporting for work. 

Increasing workforce numbers and capacity
With COVID-19 funding from USAID, the Government of Cambodia has hired 20 new social workers (in addition to 17 already working in priority provinces for care reform) for four months to provide the additional support during COVID-19. With this new deployment, every province in the country now has a social worker. In particular, these workers are focusing on case management, child protection and prevention of family separation. 

In Bangladesh, where there was an increase of four times the number of calls to the Child Helpline between February and April, UNICEF advocated to the government to reopen child courts, continue birth registration and hire more workers. The country had 3,000 social service workers before the onset of COVID-19 but needs at least 80,000 to meet typical needs. Online training was conducted for new social workers who were hired to assist the Child Helpline center, support institutions and places of detention, and work in key urban and field locations. Advocacy efforts resulted in social workers being considered as essential, critical and lifesaving. 

With 170,263 children affected by COVID-19 school closures in Bhutan, the Ministry of Education activated the Education Emergency Operation Centre under which a mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) sub desk was created. To ensure the provision of MHPSS to children, parents and caregivers in need, 147 school counsellors from 20 districts were each assigned a set number of schools to work with. With support from UNICEF, a guidance note on provision of remote PSS to parents and caregivers in Bhutan was developed to support the counsellors and other front liners working with families. All 147 school counsellors (80 male and 76 female) have been trained on how to provide psychosocial support remotely to parents and caregivers and face to face structured psychosocial support to children once the schools reopen. Laja Wangchuk, a participant, said, “The training helped me enhance my professional service delivery in time of the emergency. Especially at this COVID-19 emergency period, students, staff, parents and general public are stressed out more than the usual.” 

In South Africa, a database has been launched for unemployed and graduated social workers to enroll to help in filling roles and hiring of qualified workers. Additionally, a partnership between the National Department of Social Development, HWSETA and University of the Witwatersrand Health Consortium is placing 1,210 newly qualified social work graduates in social development and health roles. 

Community Social Workers (CSW) are a part of the frontline workforce in Armenia. In April 2020, the “Community Level Access to Social Services” (CLASS) project, funded by USAID/DCOF, conducted a needs assessment in the communities to have a clear picture of the CSW role in the communities during the COVID-19 pandemic under the conditions of the lockdown. CSWs work for local governments in a village or cluster of villages with a population of 5,000 or more. Through the end of April, 14,933 familiesreceived services, including support in applying for state programs/ resources, referrals to public organizations /programs, financial support, emergency care packages and home visits. In response to the vastly increased workload and burnout of the community social workers who started working 24/7, four additional senior social workers were hired. They keep in touch with the CSWs assigned to them on a daily basis and provide educational, professional and supportive supervision. World Vision is providing training and technical supervision to these 86 CSWs. 

COVID-19 is taking a toll on the mental health & psychosocial well-being of children & caregivers. UNICEF is also supporting governments in Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Tanzania to strengthen the capacity of social workers to provide MHPSS services and deliver other interventions. And in Ethoipia, UNICEF is working closely with the Addis Ababa Bureau of Women, Children and Youth for recruitment, training and deployment of social workers in quarantine centers.

The Iran Association of Social Workers established a system for direct consultative and supervision support to social workers by enlisting 60 university professors and managers of social organizations. A list of specialized areas, available times and mobile phone numbers were provided to social workers to connect with them. The Association also provided an update to the President of Iran on social workers’ responses during the pandemic to gain greater support. 

Integration of social and health services
When social service workers are included in integrated health services and work alongside health workers and other allied workforces, everyone wins. During this unprecedented public health pandemic, social service workers are once again proving the essential, frontline role they play in caring for and protecting individuals and communities. The Alliance recently conducted a survey to gain insight on how social service workers are responding during COVID-19. Survey results show that 28% of social service workers are supporting health staff in provision of health services. 

Medical social workers in Nigeria
Medical social workers in Nigeria

Medical social workers in Nigeria are working alongside health workers as frontline workers by providing psychosocial support and community contact tracing. In Colombia, the government launched a cross-institutional social and health framework with the goal of providing better services in order to reduce the high child mortality rates associated with all types of violence. Evidence from South Africa has shown that including child protection alongside health services contributes to supporting HIV prevention goals. These lessons are being applied to the current COVID-19 response to ensure that the work of the social service workforce is included in health responses. 

In Croatia, workers are prioritizing services to middle and high-risk families, and based on case manager assessments, families at high risk are supported with face-to-face services. To meet the growing needs for responsive services to respond to reports of family violence, the Ministry has established special crisis teams. 

Resources to Increase Support
To support social service workers in advocacy efforts for greater planning, development and support while ensuring safety and well-being during the COVID-19 response, the Global Social Service Workforce Alliance has collaborated with the Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action, UNICEF and IFSW on a technical note. The Safety and Wellbeing of the Social Service Workforce during COVID-19 Response: Recommended Actions outlines how a well-supported, appropriately equipped, empowered, and protected social service workforce is essential to mitigating the damaging effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The document also  provides guidance on how to support the social service workforce and empower them to safely serve children, families, and communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, the Global Social Service Workforce Alliance has developed advocacy materials to support the workforce in advocating for increased support, including a Global Advocacy Toolkit for the Social Service Workforce and a Call to Action: Strengthening the Social Service Workforce to Better Protect Children and Achieve the SDGs

Several other technical notes also call for recognition for child protection and other roles of the social service workforce to be designed as essential, including: COVID-19: Protecting Children from Violence, Abuse, and Neglect in the Home; Working with Communities to Keep Children Safe; and Protection of Children during the COVID-19 Pandemic: Children and Alternative Care. Other technical notes relevant to the social service workforce can be found on the Alliance website.

Share Wins for the Social Service Workforce
This is an unprecedented time to advocate for the social service workforce. The International Federation of Social Workers, in a recent article, noted the speed at which change is taking place regarding recognition of the role of social workers, stating, “Change in the delivery of social services normally takes years. There are exceptions, where political direction coincides with the aspirations of the communities and social services workforce, but these are rare. The journey over the last five months is something new: a change at global level caused by a pandemic, where social workers have been and continue to be at the forefront advocating and leading change in nearly every country.” 

It is important to capture and highlight achievements that are happening at such speed. This blog only begins to list the many policy and funding wins achieved by the social service workforce due to their essential role during the COVID-19 response. We encourage everyone to share wins your organization or association has helped to achieve so others can learn from these successes and together, we can jointly advocate for continued change. What advocacy efforts have you undertaken? How has the social service workforce received greater funding support or policy recognition? Add your voices and engage in the conversation by contributing your comments here.