Eve is a Staples High School graduate, now a social worker. That is considered an “essential” job — yet for now she is able to work from home. As she tries to make sense of “the intense feelings and questions this pandemic raises about what is truly essential,” she writes:
Why are social workers left out of conversations about individuals and work forces providing essential services related to COVID-19? Social workers are essential personnel, even though we don’t talk about their role and importance in the context of health workers on the front lines of the pandemic.
The outbreak has exacerbated social isolation, unemployment and underemployment, food insecurity, homelessness and house insecurity, stress and mental illness, along with familial changes related to illness and death.
Social workers are there. At the same time, while I am proud to advocate with and for social workers, I grapple with what is essential at my unique workplace in this pandemic.
I know I am far from alone in worrying about the risk I am willing to take — and, for my particular job, whether working on the front lines requires being there in person at my organization. I marvel at the range of our reactions. As we adjust to this new “normal,” some of us assume superhero powers overnight, while others withdraw and are overwhelmed with the uncertainty of it all.
But why am I considered essential in the non-acute setting where I work? I am not keeping people alive.
I am hit by a wave of denial and aversion. I don’t mean to devalue the important work we do, but I struggle to believe my work as a vocational counselor is or should be considered “on the front lines” because at this time, I don’t serve folks in acute conditions.
I work with individuals with chronic mental illness, mostly “stabilized” in a long-term residential setting. For them, staying physically in the group home is essential for their mental health recovery. There are few residents still at the program at this time, and the greatest need is staff to help with cleaning and cooking.
Meanwhile, I have been working tirelessly by surveying the needs of our community and rolling out virtual offerings that have reached far beyond the clients I worked with in-person pre-coronavirus.
We are learning to work with ambiguity in new ways. Fostering community and promoting their well-being during this time has been my number one priority — and I am confident in the multitude of ways I’ve been an ambassador of this from my self-quarantine.
Still, the fiscal pressures for this non-profit continue to grow. I am working remotely for now because I can fulfill my primary job duties remotely, but I could see potentially losing my position in the months to come.
I attended the annual American Group Psychotherapy Conference in New York. I stewed in my bedroom for 3 hours on March 2nd deciding whether to listen to my fiancé’s growing anxiety and cancel the trip, or simply exercise abundant caution during my week there.
I consulted my therapist, my professor and several others. By Friday I could not concentrate. I moved up my plans, squeezing in a lunch with my childhood best friend from Westport.
We did not hug. We talked about the virus briefly. I marveled at her belly for the first time, remembering how we dreamed of being pregnant at the same time.
My anxiety was rapidly growing. I decided nor to attend the alumni dinner, the popular conference dance or luncheon on Saturday. I used a wipe to hold the subway pole, carried sanitizer in my purse throughout the week, avoided handshakes or hugs successfully.
I scurried through Grand Central, sensing a growing fear as if making eye contact with people would give me the virus. I could not have imagined that hundreds of group therapists around the world would be providing indefinite virtual support groups and telehealth for peers, patients, healthcare workers to cope with a range of difficulties.
On Wednesday I received an email informing 1,000 group therapists that numerous conference attendees tested positive. Dozens more were reporting symptoms in hundreds of emails on our list-serve (those from China could attend this year). It felt like the worst game of Bingo, reviewing the list of which workshops each person who tested positive had attended.
For now, I am privileged to feel safe in my home. Our new normal is anything but normal. In the face of COVID-19, we are all confronting our existential vulnerability, and the determination of personal responsibility (notwithstanding public health guidance) as we seek meaning and understanding of what is happening within and around us. Perhaps the silver lining may be that we are forced to grapple with ethical questions, our broken systems, and recognize our undeniable interconnectedness.