The current debates about the management and defeat of COVID-19 in Nigeria lack the role that social workers should play.
In many countries, social workers have played a central role in efforts to contain the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and manage its effects. In China they are celebrated for their extraordinary roles. The same applies to the USA, Italy, New Zealand and Great Britain.
This reflects the fact that health sector governance involves a multidisciplinary approach. It includes professionals from the fields of medicine, engineering, behavioral and social sciences.
These different professionals are expected to cover certain areas of competence. This, in turn, should lead to faster delivery of health services as they are less distracted from tasks and responsibilities outside of their training.
In countries like Nigeria, it is common to find doctors and nurses who provide advanced and supportive health services. These range from providing advice, examining a patient’s medical history, making home visits, explaining treatment problems to patients and their caregivers, to monitoring patients’ mental health.
By assuming these supportive health services, medical professionals become stressed and exhausted – and distracted from their most important clinical tasks.
Countries in the global north have increasingly restricted skilled workers to their specific and specialized roles in recent years. This has led to stronger health systems and has happened in conjunction with a stronger role for social workers.
However, Nigeria has failed to recognize the role of social workers in general and in health care in particular.
The government does not seem to sympathize with the contributions of trained social workers. They have even gone so far as to thwart the professionalization of social work by means of a legal act. Social workers today no longer enjoy the full rights and privileges of a profession like their legal and medical colleagues.
Social workers are employed in most state hospitals. Yet they do not seem to have received the same respect and recognition as other health professionals.
We conducted a study to understand the role of Nigerian social workers in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. We have hired 12 health workers. Six were mainstream health workers and six were health social workers.
Our main finding was that due to the government’s lack of understanding of the critical role they should play, social workers played minimal or no role in the intervention process against COVID-19 in Nigeria, especially on the front lines. Based on this, we have recommended that the social workers be actively involved as their roles are relevant to complementing the efforts of the general health workforce.
What social workers bring to the party
Our research has shown that there are four areas: health, relationships, nutrition, and work.
bless you: Social workers have been observed continuously engaging the public with public health education online and offline in India, the UK, the US and China.
This relieves the burden on the general health staff so that they can concentrate more on the clinical care of the patients.
In some cases, they have also helped with contact tracing.
Relationships: In some countries, health workers conduct advocacy campaigns to improve the wellbeing and safety of health workers and the general public. In addition, they have helped initiate childcare from frontline staff, including security guards.
Nutrition: The pandemic has been linked to lockdowns, which in turn impacted food security. In Italy, social workers monitored food vouchers to help vulnerable groups. They relied on their education in justice and community work to ensure that food was distributed fairly and on time.
Job: The pandemic has put an enormous strain on people who have got used to new work processes. Protecting workers, helping workers and businesses overcome difficult challenges, and promoting concern among the unemployed are important roles that social workers could play.
The people we spoke to listed a number of factors that stood in the way of their ability to make meaningful contributions.
The first was that health workers had only a vague knowledge of social work. For them, social workers should be limited to helping patients in need, delivering prenatal courses, and assisting with psychiatric cases. When the pandemic broke out, some social workers said they were asked to stay home. When they came to work, their professional functions were helpful.
The health workers we spoke to looked stunned when they were briefed on the role of health care workers in several other countries in the fight against COVID-19.
We found loopholes in the system that go beyond settings.
The biggest problem is the fact that some of the heads of the social work units in the hospitals have never studied social work. They came from disciplines such as public administration, education, and even the natural sciences. This is a challenge that goes hand in hand with a lack of professionalism, as anyone can be employed in social work without any regulation. This remains one of the biggest reversals to the profession in Nigeria.
Our research underscores the indispensable role social workers can play in helping countries fight COVID-19. This would lead to a maximum focus of health workers on clinical functions and a faster victory over the virus.
Nigeria should reconsider its position on the social worker profession and give it the premium it deserves. We have seen the many cases where social workers benefit other countries including some African countries where they enjoy full professional status and are even classified as essential workers. Addressing health challenges needs to be multidisciplinary and social workers play an important role.
At the same time, social work schools should revise their curricula to fill the gaps related to the role of social workers in disease outbreaks and pandemics.