In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Pandemics and Social Work

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Analyses
  • Books
  • Online Resources
  • Social Work Facing New Challenges In Service Delivery—Overview
  • Social Work Coping
  • Community and Social Capital
  • Social Contacts
  • Residential Care
  • Children and Covid
  • Intimate partner violence
  • Inequality, Discrimination, Racism
  • Global South Country Experiences
  • Pandemic and Social Workers’ Role

Social Work Pandemics and Social Work
Walter Lorenz
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0312


The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 confronted health and also social services globally with unprecedented challenges. These amounted to a combination of increased demands for support to individuals and families whose physical and mental health and economic security were threatened by the rapid spread of the virus and the imposed limitations to direct contacts with service users. This constituted a situation for which there was no immediate historical parallel but from which important lessons for better preparedness for future global disasters and pandemics can be drawn. There existed no specific introductions to or textbooks on social work responses to pandemics and the nearest usable references concerned social work involvement in the HIV/AIDS epidemic and in the aftermath of natural disasters. Frontline social workers were at first forced to improvise ways of establishing and maintaining contacts with service users partly through electronic means and partly by taking personal risks. This is reflected in an initial delay in the production of comprehensive theoretical reflections on the practice implications of the new situation. Practitioners resorted to pragmatism, which became manifest in numerous episodic practice accounts and brief statements in social work journals which nevertheless contain important messages for new practice developments. Notably, the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) opened an online exchange and advice platform for social workers globally and also hosted a series of webinars. Nevertheless, books with collections of contributions from various practice fields and geographical areas soon began to appear. In view of the interdisciplinary nature of social work responses required in the pandemic the use of publications from a wider range of academic disciplines and related professions was indicated for this review.

Introductory Analyses

In subsequent months international social work journals came to dedicate themselves to special issues presenting predominantly empirical accounts and position statements reflecting this pragmatism (International Social Work, Qualitative Social Work, Journal of Gerontological Social Work, Social Work in Health Care, and Asia Pacific Journal of Social Work and Development, all cited under Online Resources). Notably, the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) opened an online exchange and advice platform and hosted webinars which were issued in publications summarized in Truell and Crompton 2020 and Lavalette, et al. 2020. Practice-specific publications deal mainly with ethical and methodological issues of access to clients under lockdown regulations and the use of digital communication. Of note is the emphasis on inequality and social justice that permeates most papers. More analytical responses highlight that this global health crisis exposed divisions in societies and polarizations in political responses connected with the dynamics of economic globalization triggered decades earlier and with ecological mismanagement. Issues of social justice and racism feature therefore strongly in this selection. These interconnections necessitate an interdisciplinary review of extant publications. While remaining focused on their value for social work it seemed appropriate to widen the scope of sources reviewed beyond social work to include disciplines of nursing, medicine, psychology, sociology, and political science. As Aluffi Pentini and Lorenz 2020 argues, social work requires integrated approaches to social needs and a main challenge arising from the coronavirus crisis is to reestablish the importance of social dimensions and collective responses after decades in which, as Walby summarizes, social policies emphasized individual responsibility.

  • Aluffi Pentini, Anna, and Walter Lorenz. 2020. The corona crisis and the erosion of ‘the social’: Giving a decisive voice to the social professions. European Journal of Social Work 23.4: 543–553.

    DOI: 10.1080/13691457.2020.1783215

    This paper shows how the Covid-19 pandemic laid bare rifts in society that had long developed but now also exposed the state of health and welfare services weakened due to the neglect of social integration policies. Social work is challenged to connect political analyses with personal assistance to enhance the social citizenship status of service users.

  • Lavalette, Michael, Iain Ferguson, and Vasilios Ioakimidis, eds. 2020. Social work and the COVID-19 pandemic: International insights. Bristol, UK: Policy Press.

    This well researched volume summarizes the IFSW and SWAN webinars on first social work responses to the Covid pandemic. Following Solnit 2009 (cited under Community and Social Capital—see also the separate article in Oxford Bibliographies in Psychology “Resilience” by Anthony Mancini) it collects accounts of creative crisis responses by social workers worldwide. These particularly address inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic such as racism, women’s oppression, and poverty. The article cautions against a return to “business as usual.”

  • Truell, Rory, and Simon Crompton. 2020. To the top of the cliff: How social work changed with Covid-19. IFSW.

    Published in the name of IFSW, this open access report summarizes responses to the pandemic from social workers’ responses around the globe and lays the foundations for a comprehensive reconceptualization of social work in the face of new risks and vulnerabilities demonstrated by the Corona crisis. This text is also available in German.

  • Walby, Sylvia. 2021. The COVID pandemic and social theory: Social democracy and public health in the crisis. European Journal of Social Theory 24.1: 22–43.

    DOI: 10.1177/1368431020970127

    This trenchant analysis of political studies concerning shifts in European social policies traces paradigmatically how health and social services became weakened and how this rendered societies so vulnerable to the impact of the Covid-19 virus. This underlines the importance for social work to address structural issues generally and specifically in crisis situations.

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