COVID-19 Pandemic Has Revealed the Worst — and the Best — of Society

By Kathryn Conley Wehrmann, PhD, LCSW

Kathryn Conley Wehrmann

There are so many things on my mind as I write this column, my last one as NASW board president. I never imagined I would be writing it as the world is fighting against COVID-19. What I am certain of is that we will discover a great deal about who we are as professionals and where we need to be headed in the future as a profession.

Pandemics are renowned for bringing about major societal changes. At least one of those changes may be the realization that social workers are, indeed, essential to the well-being of our society. The stories I have heard from the field demonstrate the expertise, courage and heart we are bringing to those who need us.

I am so impressed and grateful for all that I have seen in the social work community—the identification of need and the initiative taken to provide or adapt services wherever they are needed. We are deftly employing technology as we adapt practice and professional development to virtual formats. I know this has been a tremendous challenge in many places, but we are rising to meet that challenge.

As many of us are coming together in the fight against COVID-19, we also are becoming more acutely aware of the many inequities in our country. As Dr. Anthony Fauci—head of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force—observed, it is as though a huge bright light has illuminated the many weaknesses in our society. Or, as author Viet Thanh Nguyen called it, “the pre-existing conditions of our body politic.”

Our country has received a rich education about the weaknesses of our system and we have paid a high tuition for it in terms of lives and opportunities lost. Moving forward to become the country we need to be means absorbing the critical lessons and implementing the policies and programs that will lead us there. We have seen:

  • How inequitably resources are distributed in our country.
  • How deadly political polarization in our country can be.
  • How easily overt racism can flare.
  • How those most in need of help before the pandemic are even more in need in the face of it—children in abusive homes, those in need of protection from domestic violence, the elderly, immigrants, and those who are incarcerated.
  • How health care inequities have resulted in a disproportionate mortality rate from COVID-19 among African Americans.
  • How the digital divide affects poor children as they may lack the means to engage in and continue learning due to lack of computers and Wi-Fi access.
  • How desperately our frayed social safety net needs to be thoughtfully rewoven.

We have also been reminded of what are genuine signs of hope:

  • The qualities of good leadership.
  • The value of strong public health systems.
  • Who really keeps us going as a country when the chips are down.
  • Why we need to pay people fairly for their efforts.
  • That not having health care available to all is unconscionable.
  • That technology is incredibly powerful in connecting us in more meaningful ways than we ever expected, and that everyone needs to have access.

We know that a return to the old “normal” is unlikely and not really desirable in many ways. Our paradigms have been shifted and this will influence our future responses as social workers no matter what our practice setting is. As social workers we have much to offer—as we always have—to shape the direction of the country through our practice and advocacy.

I am confident that NASW will continue its timely efforts, as it has since the beginning of the pandemic, to bring its members the practice resources, learning opportunities, and advocacy at all levels of the profession—for the individuals, groups and communities we serve.

As the effects of the pandemic have spread across the United States, NASW at the state and national levels has gone all out to support the efforts of social workers. I am so proud of social workers nationwide and am grateful to have been your president. My heartfelt thanks go out to NASW CEO Angelo McClain and all of the NASW staff in Washington and across the country for their amazing work at this time and throughout my time as board president.

I am also very appreciative of the time and effort that the NASW national board members give in volunteer service for the governance of our professional organization. Finally, I send a thank you to all of you for remaining faithful members and supporting your profession through your membership.

I am proud of the many accomplishments NASW has accrued over the last few years, including working through the complexities of modernizing an organization for the future; improving its IT infrastructure, especially as we have had to move to a virtual workspace; sharpening our policy advocacy in difficult times; and keeping an eye on what lies ahead as we try to anticipate member needs in our forever-changed world.

I especially want to thank the Innovation and Resource Development Task Force that came together to help draw the map to move our association forward. We have a great future ahead and NASW President-Elect Mit Joyner is well-prepared to lead you there alongside the NASW leadership team.

Congratulations Mit, and best of luck! You have the honor of helping to lead a vital organization and an incredible membership.

Contact Kathryn Wehrmann:

"I am so impressed and grateful for all that I have seen in the social work community.... I know this has been a tremendous challenge in many places, but we are rising to meet that challenge.”

“As social workers we have much to offer—as we always have—to shape the direction of the country through our practice and advocacy.”

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