Downward spirals to vulnerability

Social workers’ concerns about their clients during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic




COVID-19, Social Work, Concerns, Vulnerability, Belgium, Survey


One of the most frequently voiced concerns in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic is ‘not to forget the vulnerable groups in society’. Social workers occupy a privileged position with a view to mapping such vulnerabilities, their complex interrelations, and the processes that increase the risk of falling victim to them. Therefore, in order for policy interventions aimed at mitigating negative impact on vulnerable groups to be effective, it is important to gain an in-depth insight into the first hand experiences and concomitant concerns of social workers. The main aim of this article is to describe and categorize the main concerns social workers had about their clients a few weeks into Belgium’s first wave of the pandemic. The data used derive from a large scale online survey taken among social workers in Flanders and the Brussels region in April/May 2020, closely following the lockdown on 18 March. Thematic coding analysis was used to analyse textual answers with regard to concerns about current clients. Concerns fall into six main categories, the most important one being direct concerns about the safety and wellbeing of clients in the context of various life domains (physical and mental health, family, work, education, social networks, housing, financial and material wealth), apart from concerns about communication issues more in general, about changes in the interactional dynamics between social worker and client, the effects of lockdown related changes to forms of social help, about very specific vulnerable groups, and, lastly, about the resilience of the social work sector. Analysis of the connections between concerns also enables us to reconstruct several chains of events that may result in specific (reinforced) vulnerabilities. If policy interventions aim to be attentive to such vulnerabilities, taking stock of these chains of events is of paramount importance.

Author Biographies

Bart Put

Researcher, PhD
PXL Social Work Research, PXL University of Applied Sciences and Arts

Kim Bastaits

Researcher, PhD
PXL Social Work  Research, PXL University of Applied Sciences and Arts

Inge Pasteels

Head of Research, PhD
PXL Social Work Research, PXL University of Applied Sciences and Arts

Michiel Massart

Researcher, MA
PXL Social Work Research, PXL University of Applied Sciences and Arts


be. (2021). Jaarrapport 2020.

Amadasun, S. (2020). Social work and COVID-19 pandemic: An action call. International Social Work, 63(6), 753-756.

Bastaits, K., Pasteels, I., Massart, M. & Put, B. (2021). The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the social service clientele. Unpublished - under review.

Brown, K., Ecclestone, K. & Emmel, N. (2017). The many faces of vulnerability. Social Policy & Society, 16(3), 497-510.

De Coninck, J. (2020). Hulplijnen krijgen meer oproepen over familiaal geweld: “Blijf niet in uw kot als u in onveilige thuissituatie zit”. Vrtnws.

Dominelli, L., Harrikari, T., Mooney, J., Leskošek, V. & Tsunoda, E. K. (Ed.). (2020). COVID-19 and social work: A collection of country reports.

Federale overheid. (2020a). Coronavirus: Fase 2 gehandhaafd, overgang naar federale fase en bijkomende maatregelen.

Federale overheid. (2020b). Help jezelf en anderen te beschermen.

Federale overheid. (2020c). Ministerieel besluit houdende dringende maatregelen om de verspreiding van het coronavirus COVID-19 te beperken.

Federale overheid. (s.d.). Monitoring van de sociale impact van de COVID-19-crisis in België.,opgericht%20om%20ECOSOC%20te%20ondersteunen.

Glaser, B. G. & Strauss, A. L. (1967). The discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies for qualitative research. Aldine.

Koning Boudewijnstichting. (2020). Covid-19 versterkt armoede: wat armoedeorganisaties ons zeggen.

POD Maatschappelijke Integratie (2020). Synthese van de werkzaamheden van de TaskForce Kwetsbare Groepen.

Schirmer, W. & Michailakis, D. (2015). The Luhmannian approach to exclusion/inclusion and its relevance to social work. Journal of Social Work, 15(1), 45-64.

Sciensano. (2020). Vijfde COVID-19-Gezondheidsenquête.

Steunpunt mantelzorg. (2020). Persbericht: coronacrisis zet mantelzorgers onder druk.

Steunpunt tot bestrijding van armoede, bestaansonzekerheid en sociale uitsluiting. (2020). Overzicht van COVID-19-maatregelen, ter ondersteuning in situaties van armoede en bestaansonzekerheid.

Tonui, B. C., Ravi, K. E., & Rodriguez, P. C. (2020). COVID-19: Social work reflections on challenges and lessons. Greenwich Social Work Review, 1(2), 103-105.

Van Lommel, S. (2020). “De gevolgen van de schoolsluiting duren langer dan een jaar”. De Tijd.

Walter-McCabe, H. A. (2020a). Coronavirus health inequities in the United States highlight need for continued community development efforts. The International Journal of Community and Social Development, 2(2), 211-233.

Walter-McCabe, H. A. (2020b). Coronavirus pandemic calls for an immediate social work response. Social Work in Public Health, 35(3), 69-72.

Whittaker, A., & Taylor, B. (2017). Understanding risk in social work. Journal of Social Work Practice, 31(4), 375-378.




How to Cite

Put, B., Bastaits, K., Pasteels, I., & Massart, M. (2021). Downward spirals to vulnerability: Social workers’ concerns about their clients during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of Comparative Social Work, 16(2), 36–61.