April 26, 2020 at 9:56 p.m.

The strength in social ties

Dear CSSW Community,

As we enter our sixth week of the stay-at-home order in NY and many other places, it’s time to reflect on where we are and what comes next. There are in excess of 150,000 confirmed COVID cases in New York City, and over 16,000 confirmed and probable COVID-related deaths. The number of cases across the US approaches one million. The good news is that the number of new cases in NYC appears to be declining. Everyone is asking – when do we return to normal? More importantly, HOW do we return to normal? There are many discussions, perspectives, and opinions. In the words of Charles Blow of the NY Times, “there is a reckoning coming.” What is abundantly clear is that both careful planning and immense patience will be required to engineer a safe return to our “usual” lives.

We are all very mindful of those on the front lines of this crisis – certainly those working in hospitals, but in many other sites and agencies as well. Social workers are well-represented in this group. In this week’s British Medical Journal, editor-in-chief Fiona Godlee decries the fact that “health and social care workers are dying because of occupational exposure to covid-19.” She goes on to cite “complacency, arrogance, and delay” as factors that worsened the situation in the United Kingdom. These issues surely resonate here in the US as well. We must also confront continuing anti-Asian discrimination, and the substantial health disparities in coronavirus death rates by race and ethnicity, with our African-American, Latinx, and Indigenous communities suffering substantially higher risks of death from coronavirus.

Moving forward, we are obligated to address these troubling issues. What could we have done differently to manage the current crisis? What societal changes are required to combat persistent health disparities? What must we do differently in the future? We have to learn all we can from the COVID crisis to maximize health and equity and eliminate disparities. We owe that to all affected.

We have more days of “physical distancing” ahead of us, but that doesn’t have to equate to social isolation. In a detailed analysis of mortality during Chicago’s great heat wave of 1995, sociologist Eric Klinenberg pointed to the relationship between social ties and health outcomes, a finding that emphasizes the role of good government and “social solidarity” in maintaining the well-being of the public. There’s an important lesson for us in that finding, and one that social workers have long understood: social support matters. In the weeks ahead, let’s amplify our efforts to check in on our acquaintances who may be isolated, and redouble our commitment to thank those who pursue their work at great personal risk to themselves – not only social workers and health care providers, but also those who provide essential services, such as transportation workers, grocery store clerks, pharmacy staff, and delivery personnel. These are the folks who are keeping us going, and we owe them a great deal.

With best regards and great hope for the future –