From the Pen of the President: June 2020
NASW-Illinois Chapter President Grisel Rodríguez-Morales, MSW, LCSW
Last week, like many around the country, thousands of Illinois residents left the safety of their homes to once again demand justice. Days after the life of Mr. George Floyd was wrongfully taken, we’re demanding that our nation adopts policing reforms. The use of lethal force and racial profiling largely employed against African American and Latinx citizens can no longer be ignored. As advocates and the voice for individuals with limited resources and no political power, our profession is integral in responding to national social justice issues such as racial and population-based discrimination and health equity.
It was also just last week when Illinoisans were preparing to enter phase 3 of the state’s reopening plan after spending at least 10 weeks engaging in social distancing and other mitigation measures to minimize the number of COVID-19 infections. Weeks in which executive orders as well as many other organizational or localized plans have had to be revised as medical and public health experts were learning from clinical observations. Frequent revisions—the devastation resulting not only from the disease but also from economic downturn—have kept us vigilant, busy, and innovative.
COVID-19 has claimed over 100,000 lives, and the pandemic has highlighted systemic issues and inequities that we as social workers know very well. The fatality rates of minority racial and ethnic groups are higher, although they make a smaller percentage of the population. Social determinants of health certainly contribute to these disparities. Those with less opportunities to stay home, lower incomes, or who live in substandard housing or unsafe neighborhoods normally experience differences in health outcomes. The mortality rate for African Americans is more than double the rate for Asians and Latinos, and 2.5 times that of Whites. In Illinois, 32% of African Americans have died of COVID-19 although this group represent 14% of the state population. In Chicago, although black residents make up 30% of the city’s population, they account of 60% of its coronavirus fatalities, the highest mortality rate of any racial or ethnic group.
Saving lives will continue to be our priority. This can be done by addressing the social care needs of individuals, families, and communities. Community-wide interventions that address social conditions and improve population health are necessary, and social workers have been essential in making it possible. Educating individuals and families of health risk factors is another important intervention that social workers must provide to individuals, families, and communities—especially to those greatly affected by inequities. It is as essential as ensuring access to social services and advocating for those in need. Health education and wellness counseling done in a culturally sensitive way can help minimize complications from poorly managed chronic health conditions and reduce the spread of coronavirus.
I’m sure we won’t have difficulty making use of our interview skills and systems navigation, linking people to needed resources (medical, housing, food, economic, etc.), providing crisis counseling, using harm-reduction and public health strategies, or being the voice of marginalized and vulnerable groups. The person-in-environment framework of our profession looks at not only the needs of individuals and communities, but also at strengths. It is a framework we need to embrace when also considering the needs of social workers as we do the work during this pandemic. The health and safety of social workers and other essential workers is at risk when access to personal protective equipment (PPE) in settings such as nursing homes, schools, and hospitals during the COVID-19 pandemic is lacking. The more I participated in listening sessions and meetings where colleagues candidly spoke of the challenges they were facing, the more disheartened I felt when learning that, although working in settings like mine and providing the same type of help to others, our experience was also unequal. As essential professionals, providing vital services to individuals and communities, we must stay abreast on key policy issues. These include the needed relief to communities of color disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, hazard pay for social workers, and access to optimal PPE. We must fiercely advocate for voting rights, criminal justice reforms, juvenile justice, immigration reform and economic justice, and equity which are our association's social justice prioirities. Let’s stay vigilant, busy, innovative, and involved.
Other COVID-19 News and Resources
National NASW COVID-19 Resources: https://www.socialworkers.org/Practice/Infectious-Diseases/Coronavirus
NASW-IL News page: https://www.naswil.org/blog
NASW Illinois MyNASW Community (NASW Members only): http://mynasw.socialworkers.org/naswil
Grisel Rodríguez-Morales, MSW, LCSW, is Manager of Health Promotion Programs at
Rush University Medical Center. She currently serves as president on the NASW-Illinois Chapter Board of Directors and is former Chicago District Chair.