‘You can’t verify injuries over Zoom’ – remote social work under Covid-19 in the UAE

For World Social Work Day 2021, a social worker and two academics talk about how Covid has affected social work and vulnerable migrants in blue-collar jobs in the United Arab Emirates

Photo: ibreakstock/Adobe Stock

By Alice Blackwell and Charlotte Carter

Just like the rest of the world, Covid-19 has kept the United Arab of Emirates (UAE) in its grip. 

As of 15 March 2021, the UAE had recorded 428,295 cases and 1,402 deaths.

Expatriates, who make up 88.5% of the UAE population, have been particuarly hard hit by the pandemic, particularly those in blue-collar jobs, who account for half the expatriate workforce. 

Most of these workers are employed in construction, transport and service industries, sectors hit hard by the epidemic.

Vulnerable workers

Khaoula Benothman and Anamika Misra, lecturers in social work and health science at the UAE’s Higher Colleges of Technology, said those in blue-collar jobs have been particularly vulnerable to the disease.

They are typically on low wages, working long hours and often living in cramped dormitories that have been coronavirus hotbeds. They also socially excluded, experiencing cultural, linguistic and legal barriers that further impede their access to health, disease prevention, treatment and continuity of care, despite obligations under international human rights law, they said. 

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“At least 200,000 unskilled workers, mostly from India, Pakistan, the Philippines and Nepal, have left, many without wages, end of term benefits or repatriation tickets, and embassies are inundated by the number of unskilled expatriate workers requesting repatriation flights,” Benothman and Misra added.

Priya Mitchell, school counsellor and designated safeguarding lead at The British School Al Khubairat, Abu Dhabi, said working within the UAE, many expats continue to live with the threat of losing their jobs and livelihoods, which had increased stresses among families.

“People have also been cut off from their family and friends in their home countries with the quarantines and travel bans making travel near impossible,” she said. 

As in the UK, there have concerns about the impact of home schooling on children’s mental health. Mitchell said children in years 7-9 in her school had been home-schooled for 11 months, and while other groups came back for most of the autumn term but then reverted to distance learning for the first half of the spring term. 

“One of the biggest worries has been how vulnerable children are accessing support. There was a sparsity of mental health services pre-pandemic and the pandemic has increased the prevalence of mental health challenges among school students,” Mitchell said.

The challenge of remote child protection practice

As for social workers in other countries, the pandemic has both increased levels of need and made it more difficult for practitioners to respond.

Child protection is “not yet set up to cope with the referrals sent through” and home visits are yet not allowed. 

“Therefore, many social workers in child protection have found it a challenge and frustrating to access the children. 

“When working over Zoom you are dependent on the child attending the appointments and being able to speak openly without the fear of parents in the background,” Mitchell said, adding that “there is no way of verifying injuries over Zoom”.

An adaptable profession 

Benothman and Anamika Misra said despite the challenges, the social work profession had provied its adaptability.

“Many social workers were involved in providing free meals, repatriation facilities, in co-ordination with the embassies, advocacy on behalf of workers to encourage companies to pay their previous wages and repatriation ticket- as per the law,” they said.

Where face-to-face interactions were not possible, social workers provided telephone consultations and many social workers volunteered their time to respond via free toll-free helplines for people affected by Covid-19. 

However, they added that the pandemic has highlighted the need to grow the profession: “Considering the minuscule number of licensed social workers in the country, we need a strengthening of the country’s social work profession.”

2 Responses to ‘You can’t verify injuries over Zoom’ – remote social work under Covid-19 in the UAE

  1. Calum March 19, 2021 at 6:25 pm #

    I was a teenager in Al Ain in the UAE. I’d be very intrigued to understand what the child protection system looks like over there today.

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