Losses and Hopes: The new normal and social work during pandemic and beyond.
Sasha Kondrashov, PhD
The article is inspired after reading The Irish Times on Restarting Ireland: When and how will we ‘get back to normal’? by Jennifer O’Connell. The first part of the article provides a summary of the O’Connell ideas and their adaptation to Canadian reality on how pandemic impacts multiple areas of human lives. The second part highlights some of the future directions of social work can take to support people in meeting their needs in pandemic and beyond. The article is a living document, that I will update as new thoughts and ideas about new normal and social work responses evolve.
Questions for Inquiry
What is the future for social work look? What is the future of the world? When can we expect “normality” to resume in Canada? When will people regain their right to move and other rights and freedoms back? Will it be a gradual process or all at once? And what kind of country – what kind of world – will be waiting for us once the pandemic is over?
The answers for Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada, and the world depend mainly on the curve and how societies can control the spread of the virus. Many people around the world are looking for answers from researchers who explore, describe, explain and predict the world after the pandemic. Is the curve steep or flat? When it peaks? How far it stretches? What trajectory Canada will follow, will we become new Italy or new South Korea or develop a unique Canadian path. When and if we have a second wave of the pandemic. People do not know, and researchers are testing multiple hypotheses
The hope is for a more optimistic scenario – that social distancing will work; that cases will have subsided by early summer, and at some point after that, the work of restarting our communities can begin. Some places around the world are working on re-starting their economies while maintaining physical distancing guidelines to minimize future losses. The one thing is sure that each of us will experience multiple losses during the pandemic, but there is hope that we can rebuild our capitals if we will be taking appropriate actions. Now we know that things will not get back to normal for awhile. The normal we knew is gone. Now we are creating a new normal, and how it will look, it is up to all of us.
I invite all of you to think what new normal can look like for you, for your family, community, city, country, the world. The move to new normality cannot fully resume until there is a vaccine as humanity will keep experiencing a series of pandemic waves until the vaccine is found. It is science and the hope more people will be able in the future recognize the importance of scientific knowledge in moving humanity forward. The hope is that the health system and our economy will be transformed to manage those pandemic waves and ideally, we might only have one wave. At this time, it is unknown.
When will we start seeing the new normal? Some experts suggest that when schools and universities will offer classes in person or when restrictions are effectively gone, or when the people are still sick, but the ICU system is not overwhelmed or when all of the above conditions are met? Every Canadian will experience multiple losses during a pandemic, such as losing their loved ones, their jobs and their freedoms. Once the vaccine is found, and the “new normal” can be created, will people be okay with the idea the Government can implement austerity measures to recoup the losses? Another unanswered question.
Can the Canadian Government both federally and provincially respond adequately to the new normal? Time will show, but everyone needs to take action now to demonstrate their willingness to accept changes that promote social welfare for all. The role of the Government will be to harness credibility by showing the public it can deliver on their expectations. We need a new, much more sophisticated form of social dialogue between elected representatives and their constituencies about how we want to reshape our economy for the future. The hope is that Canada emerges from this crisis with a much healthier democratic future that is based on social work values. The governments should recognize and adequately reward contributions of all essential services and workers, such as truck drivers, grocery stores and delivery personal, nurses, first responders, social workers, doctors and other health care professionals in providing essential services. Taxes will rise, and essential public services will be much better off as a result.
Losses, hopes and Social Work Response:
A lot of losses Canada will experience during a pandemic. A lot of people will be bereaved. Some will die. But there is the prospect for us coming out of this a somewhat better and socially responsible people. All spheres will be affected, and the social work profession will be reshaped in unprecedented ways.
The reality of “the remote working and learning environments” will be tested during a pandemic and hopefully accepted as allowing greater flexibility for students/workers to either work/study from home or physical classroom/workspace. The question will remain as there is no consensus on whether people want to hang onto the freedom and flexibility remote working/studying allows, or will we want to get back to the workplace/physical classroom as soon as possible? Managers/Educators need to answer the question of whether the obsession with presenteeism is driven by productivity or by control? Some people might be happier, not commuting and working remotely. They should have choices to whether work remotely or not as some people in unhappy or controlling relationships might prefer to work from the office, which will provide an escape and opportunity to connect with others at the workplace. In contrast, others can be productive by working from home.
The social work research for work environment can focus on losses, hopes and social work responses to protect future workforce and support economy for all. The research questions can focus on remote work environment, what works, what doesn’t for each sector of the economy, how are workers rights are protected during pandemic and beyond, what layoffs mean for multiple groups of employers, how to work remotely and in paperless and cashless societies. Can industries maintain physical distancing to allow safe work environment for all. How nursing care can be transformed to ensure dignity for everyone? How pandemic work impacts vulnerable communities? Can parenting and work happen from the same space? What supports employers and employees need to work effectively during pandemic and beyond? Lots of possibilities for future research to ensure that future work environment adequately meets the needs of everyone.
Zoom, an app previously used mostly to connect with colleagues in other parts of the world, has become central to the locked-down social lives, with everyone from five-year-olds to 95-year-olds using it to stay in touch with family. During pandemic Zoom is used to replace in-person interactions, and there are might be times when it is a more convenient alternative to driving across town to meet someone for coffee. So Zoom tea meetings and Zoom dinner parties might stay as there is no reason why one cannot have breakfast in Canada while your friend in Ukraine is having dinner. Pandemic can help us to reset our priorities. As everyone is faced with the prospect of the loss of many social connections, it allows us to reconsider things like the priority of friendship. The fact is that we don’t need to be hectic and busy all the time and many things can be postponed or cancelled to prioritize our health, safety and well-being.
Losses: The loss of social interaction is felt by many and social distancing and lockdown measures leave less opportunities to interact in a way most people do, by having personal conversations in close proximity to each other. The move to online communication can be frustrated and due to the lack of knowledge some groups might abuse online communication by increasing the possibility for online scams, bullying and compromise personal safety and security through using phishing e-mails and other techniques to take advantage of already vulnerable populations. The research can focus on how communication losses experienced during pandemic can be minimized and what can be done to maintain regular communication with loved ones while practicing physical distancing.
Hopes: The loss of in person communication, expanded the use of social media and practice creative expressions that can be shared online. Online communication is different and requires time to learn but it provides a hope that in between our in person meetings people are able to stay connected and once distancing and lockdown measures are lifted people will join others to celebrate in person and appreciate those moments together due to experience of in person communication loss during pandemic. The research can focus on what aspects of online communication might be used in the future to support people who lack communication before pandemic as well as during pandemic and what type of communications humans want to experience after pandemic.
Social work responses: Advocacy for universal internet access, phone connections and personal communication devices for all is one of the area where social workers can advocate in time of pandemic and beyond. Having online access allows people to stay connected when other means of communication are unavailable. Social workers can educate public on how to use online communication tools effectively, provide counselling supports via telehealth, and raise awareness of online scams, importance of security measures in online communication to protect the most vulnerable people.
The pandemic has plunged families all over the world into a new and previously unimaginable balancing act: parents are trying to juggle work, childcare and their children’s education, in sometimes suffocating proximity to one another. One of the awful consequences of this is the rise in domestic violence and child abuse. Those who are already vulnerable now have no escape. We need to think about new solutions to the everyday concerns the vulnerable members of our societies face. On a positive side, when the pandemic is over, it is the hope that there might be an equal division of unpaid work in the home as now many family members work from home, and there are more opportunities to balance domestic labour. The social work research can focus on impacts of pandemic on family life. What supports are critical for families during pandemic? How social services can respond to family needs in times of pandemic. How to protect vulnerable families who are isolated and have challenges to cope with increasing demand of life?
The closure of schools has exposed a gaping digital divide across the haves and have-nots. Many students don’t have adequate broadband – or else their teachers or schools simply aren’t equipped to teach or support them online. Online teaching and learning will become far more embedded in the education system once this crisis is over. This raises the stakes for students at risk of being left behind. Ensuring all students have equal access to online support will become a much bigger issue, as will ensuring schools and teachers are properly equipped to deliver high-quality online support. The social work research can focus on how schools can be accessible for vulnerable groups, what supports are needed to make education adequate for all students. What supports teachers, administrators, parents and students need to deliver services in online teaching/learning environment? How to make sure that no children are left behind and actively participate in the educational journey.
The fact that universities have had to embrace remote learning without the sky falling means this way of teaching and learning could soon become the norm. Although there is a lot of resistance for online education, the fact that everyone who is part of post-secondary education in times of pandemic is now experienced remote teaching and learning. The possibility of remote education to save money for not travelling to university campuses and receive quality educational services at a time when students are under severe financial pressure allows an opportunity to think how the future of education can look like. What can be taught remotely, who can learn remotely and how on campus studies can be done in times of pandemic to meet the needs of those who need to continue in person education for experiential learning. Starved of public funds and with a private income, including that from international students taking a hit, universities and colleges may well reassess ambitious expansion plans. The cost-benefits of distance learning could well see universities and colleges rush to embrace this as the primary method of teaching and learning. However, there will always be students who want to be in the classroom, and in-person options should always be available to them when the pandemic is over. What is new balance between in person and online instructions will look like. Will hy-flex become the new norm, where it is up to students to choose the way they can meet learning objectives and it is important for universities to offer choices to meet students needs and support educators and students to create courses using universal design principles to make education accessible to all students and not only those privileged to attend university campuses in person.
Social work research can focus on how students are supported during pandemic, what are the experiences of students, faculty, staff and administrators who were required to deliver courses remotely during pandemic. How universities are coping with delivering on campus instruction when physical distancing measures are in place? How to create an effective learning and teaching environment in times of pandemic and beyond and what supports students and faculty need in course delivery during and after pandemic.
International Travel and Tourism
People’s travel intentions might return by 2021 or 2024 or???. No one knows when people will feel safe to travel again and how airline industries and airports will survive pandemic as their operations were reduced dramatically. The question is whether international travel will ever again be as affordable and accessible as it was, remains open. Planning for international conferences is now being pushed out as far as 2022 and people may be less likely to travel for work. From a climate perspective, that may be no bad thing. Will domestic travel become the new norm and how communities that depend on international travel and tourism will adjust to the pandemic world and post-pandemic travel. Are the future conferences and international collaboration will be online only? Lots of uncertainty for any industries that are connecting to tourism and recreation. We will definitely have a lot to re-create and re-imagine on how travel will look like in times of physical distancing.
The entertainment sector has been devastated by the lockdown. Outdoor events support a considerable amount of self-employed and smaller companies – staging, sound and lighting companies, camper vans, trucking, caterers, lighting companies, security, drivers, generators. Some artists adapt and entertain the public via livestream from home. Public also turning to the arts at a time of crisis. The artists are playing a crucial role, offering comfort, providing company to people in isolation. The sector will bounce back quickly, but that is dependent on continued investment and support. There’s a tremendous amount of income from box office and sponsorship that will be lost. Arts organizations are deeply concerned and trying to recalibrate their plans. Many artists displayed a generosity of spirit and have shown that they are adaptable and resilient. That has been very empowering. What the future of the entertainment look like, how we can practice physical distancing in venues that gather thousands of people before pandemic. Will all entertainment industry move online or we will look on many small community concerts and neighbourhood physical distancing concerts. What entertainment will look like in post-pandemic world.
In sport, as in other sectors, a lot of things have been pushed into 2021. What we are going to see next year is all these mega global sports events, like Olympic Games and EURO 2021, being condensed into one year. Once the social distancing regulations are lifted, people will be desperate for some sort of normality. People keep now realizing the big part sport plays in their lives. Will the mass sport events can be adapted to post-pandemic world? How we can enjoy sports while practicing physical distancing? What are new ways to embrace sports activities in everyday life.
The answer to the question “what comes next?” in politics often depends on what went before. The prospects for the formation of the next Government – and its chances of enduring – depend on what happens in the coming months. While the number of Covid-19 cases continues to decline every day in Canada and the containment measures are having an effect that does not mean that there will not be a surge in the number of cases over the coming weeks. There will, experts warn. The significant thing will be whether it is of a sufficient order to overwhelm the health system. The worth scenario we can have Italy in Canada, it looks less promising now and hopefully will not become a reality in the future where hospitals may be unable to cope, patients unable to get treatment, intensive care could be overloaded, and thousands could die. Hopefully, Canadians will learn from Italy and find our Canadian way to deal with crises by slowly and steadily planking the curve as we have seen can happen when everyone takes responsibility to stop the spread of the virus.
One can imagine the stink there will be when the special Covid-19 unemployment benefit is phased out in favour of regular unemployment benefit. Such a devastating scenario might well also destroy the current Government. Right now, there is widespread support for the Government in Canada; people are willing them to be successful. If the health system is overwhelmed, that is likely to change quickly. There will be a lot of blame to go around. But if the health system copes and the numbers of deaths are kept relatively low, if the Government is perceived to have handled the situation as well as could have been expected – then the prospects improve for a current minority government to continue until the next elections.
The next Government will be formed against a background of unprecedented economic and social challenges left behind by the pandemic. It will face the necessity of unwinding some of the extraordinary financial supports put in place recently and the need to put the public finances back on a sustainable footing. That is never a task completed without rancour.
People might like the health, welfare and childcare services provided by a vastly expanded state; they might not relish paying for them through the inevitable tax increases. Public sector workers expecting pay increases under a new national wage agreement this year will be lucky to escape pay cuts instead. All this will make for a rough time for any government, and a bitter politics. And remember: that is the kind scenario. But while those challenges are inevitable for the next Government, there is also the possibility that politics is transformed by the experience of the crisis. So far, the crisis has been the occasion for extraordinary social solidarity. The next Government will undoubtedly face daunting challenges; it may also experience the most exciting possibilities.
What do the above changes mean for social work? Social work plays a critical role in a pandemic situation as people experience multiple losses and need support in adapting to the new normal. Social workers are essential workers and are trained to provide holistic supports to rebuild various capitals on both individual and structural levels. COVID-19 has been frustrating, and deadly for so many people. However, some of the changes might allow us to think about the future on what we want the world to look like after the pandemic. It is important to remember that even amidst despair, there can be hope. The hope is that people during pandemic are starting to develop more genuine connections, with smaller groups of people, video conferencing with closer friends and family, instead of hanging out with crowds. The faith communities are finding new ways to connect with members to meet spiritual needs. People are finding new ways to cope and investing in one on one time with themselves when possible. Some are learning new hobbies that they have always wanted to do, or old hobbies that they haven’t done in years. Those of us who are privileged and have extra time and space have started a garden, begun learning how to play an instrument, and even getting around to finally reading books that they have had on their list for so long. Many doctors offices and provincial healthcare systems have now moved to online video conference where prescriptions can be filled and then delivered right to your house without ever having to leave. We are living in paperless world and deliveries become a new way that help some businesses to connect with their customers. Many discovered that the 1 to 2 hour commute every day to work they were doing was completely unnecessary and work from home might be an option for some and home productivity can be just as good as in the office. This means more time for family, less pollution, less traffic, and a more modern working environment. All of the above statements can be some of the research hypothesis that needs to be tested for diverse groups to ensure that everyone’s needs are met and services are adequate, accessible, affordable for all. Hopefully some government initiatives that support homeless people by providing adequate housing during pandemic can be expanded after pandemic times and people without work will continue having guaranteed minimum income from the government. Hopefully on the hunt for a cure with COVID-19 vaccine we can also find cures and other treatments for tons of other diseases and develop new practices that are adequate, acceptable, accessible, affordable, applicable for all. Time will show, lets keep researching and exploring multiple ways how social work can respond to pandemic.