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In COVID-19, a Crisis and an Opportunity

(March 17, 2020)We’re in the midst of a challenging and unprecedented time. The novel coronavirus, COVID-19, has thrust us all into unchartered territory awash with feelings of uncertainty and concern for ourselves, our loved ones, and those who are the most vulnerable among us. At the Graduate College of Social Work, we are deeply concerned for the health and safety of our students, and our colleagues. We’ve taken several measures to protect all those in our extended communities. While I suspect this period of uncertainty will remain for some time, I am optimistic that our resiliency will triumph and our time of collective crisis will lead to new ways of appreciating everything that is good about each other.

As social workers, we’re often first responders in times of crisis. We pride ourselves on this and take joy in the help we’re able to provide others. This is what makes us great. I hope each of you are also taking care of yourselves. As social workers, we often think of helping ourselves last, but in this current crisis, our ability to help others can be significantly impaired if we don’t take care of ourselves first.

In addition to taking the time to care for ourselves, the COVID-19 outbreak has provided many of us the time to consider the impacts this crisis will have on those who are most vulnerable around us. Unfortunately, as is often the case in times of crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed many of the inequities in our society that remain unaddressed. While many of us have access to healthcare should we need it and have stocked up on food and other provisions, seeking healthcare and stockpiling food are luxuries not everyone can afford. Those who are undocumented and uninsured remain among our country’s most vulnerable citizens in this current crisis. While legislators are considering ways to address this, we need to remain vigilant in calling for significant effort and attention to provide quality healthcare for all, and not only in times of crisis.

This crisis has also led us to consider how we treat another of our most vulnerable populations, those who are incarcerated in jails and prisons, who are at increased risk of a life-threatening outbreak due to close quarters, poor sanitation, and under-resourced health systems. Across the country, calls are being made to take action to protect this increasingly vulnerable population. In San Francisco, the Public Defender’s office has asked the Chief of Police to suspend all arrests of non-violent offenders so those who are incarcerated are not inadvertently exposed to COVID-19. In Santa Clara County, California, the Sheriff’s office is considering a plan that would parole inmates who are considered low-risk. In New York, the Brooklyn Attorney General has asked the Governor to grant emergency clemency to those who are older or have underlying health conditions. And in Texas, Dallas and Collin Counties have suspended arrests of Class C misdemeanors. 

Each of these actions is necessary to protect an increasingly vulnerable population. Yet it shouldn’t take a global pandemic to realize it is completely unnecessary to arrest and incarcerate people who commit non-violent crimes. If we can suspend arrests and release people who’ve committed non-violent crimes from jails and prisons across the country to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak, why are we arresting them in the first place?

Similarly, many states and local governments have made the decision to suspend utility cutoffs so that during a time when maintaining hygiene is essential in combatting the spread of COVID-19, everyone has access to water. While these decisions are to be applauded as forward-thinking to help mitigate the risk to our communities, we also must consider the implications. Access to basic and essential resources such as water represent an area where we should be challenging the status quo and pushing for the changes necessary such that access to water is guaranteed not only during a global pandemic but as a human right. We must question and challenge the unnecessary suffering all vulnerable populations have experienced as a result of our society’s failure to secure basic resources and rights.

 I’m hopeful that in this moment of crisis, we can take this opportunity to consider how we treat each other as people and as a community. Can we use this opportunity to think of new ways of responding to challenges in our society that cause less harm to others? Can we use this opportunity to think of new ways of keeping ourselves safe that respect the inherent value of each of us? Can we work together to be a better version of ourselves and work together to create a better version of our society? Opportunities in times of crisis are rare, but when we find them, it is up to us to decide how we as a society will respond. I know, as those in our profession have always known, that we CAN do more to ensure the dignity and worth of each of us. And especially those most vulnerable among us.

Very best wishes to all of you, all of us, on staying informed, safe, and well. 

Alan Dettlaff, PhD, MSW
Dean and Maconda Brown O’Connor Endowed Dean’s Chair