The growing U.S. culture of death; what can social workers do?

What, if anything, can social workers do to halt America’s evident descent into a culture of death and despair? I realize that invoking language of “death and despair” may strike some as more than a little hyperbolic, but consider:

The COVID pandemic continues to rage across the globe, and indeed the dominant and highly communicable Delta variant is rapidly picking up steam in the U.S. with rising infections, hospitalizations, and deaths. Yet Americans in large numbers refuse vaccination – the only way, according health authorities, that we can hope to ever beat a virus with a limitless capacity to mutate.

Gun violence – with its tragically predictable outcomes of permanent disability and death for its victims – is escalating across the nation. Yet adamant Second Amendment “defenders” resist any and all efforts to apply commonsense restrictions on their sacred “rights,” insisting that the way to peace and security lies in continuing to flood our homes and streets with ever more – and more lethal – arms.

Drug overdose deaths, a signal indicator of despair’s victory over hope in the human soul and community – are setting new records, jumping 30% in 2020 alone, and claiming a growing share of unnecessary, “surplus” U.S. deaths. Yet the legal purveyors of addiction-related death – the politically powerful pharmaceutical manufacturers – are permitted to rake in obscene profits under only the lightest of regulatory yokes.

It’s clear that the bonds of civility and social solidarity in the U.S. are unraveling. Less clear is what can be done to reverse the slide into incivility, care-lessness, and tolerance for the unnecessary suffering and deaths of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of our fellow citizens annually.

A point of departure, at least, is the social work vision of a just and equitable social order, an order in which meeting the basic needs of everyone, regardless of gender, race, class, or nationality, is the highest priority. This is the world we want and the world we desperately need – one of two alternatives, the other being continued fraying of the social bonds and a descent into barbarism and death.

So, yes, there is something we social workers can do, whatever our work setting, area of practice, or systems focus, from micro to global: We can articulate the starkness of the choice that must be made. We can affirm life over death in every instance of choice. We can demand meaningful changes that move the U.S., indeed the global community as whole, beyond the world as it is in the direction of the world that we want and need.

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