Global citizenship education has an important role to play in ensuring that the world that emerges from the COVID-19 crisis is safe, fair and inclusive, argues Christiana Nikolitsa-Winter
The spread of COVID-19 represents an unprecedented challenge for humanity. As well as taking a huge toll on healthcare systems around the world, it is also having a major negative impact on labour markets and economies. People get ill, many will die, but very many will also lose their jobs, and a large number of small and medium-sized enterprises will close.
The heaviest price will be paid by those who are already worst off, whose jobs are the most precarious and least well paid. While the virus does not discriminate, there is a danger that it will impact disproportionately on poorer people and poorer communities, thus exacerbating existing inequalities.
There has been a remarkable unanimity in the approaches taken by national governments to the crisis. While some take longer to get there than others, almost all countries are calling on their citizens to show discipline and patience in making the adjustments to their behaviour required to prevent the further spread of the virus.
As German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in an appeal to the people of Germany, ‘We have to change our everyday lives — not gradually, but right now’. Solidarity, he said, ‘is the task of the hour’.
One source of light in the gloom of economic lockdown and self-isolation has been the positive action of communities and citizens, the expressions of support for critical workers, including medical professionals, and the spontaneous demonstrations of social solidarity, particularly with the most vulnerable.
Local and global communities and individuals all over the world have shown empathy with those in most need. Medical students and retired health workers have volunteered to help in hospitals, while neighbours help the elderly and vulnerable to get food. Musicians have organized virtual concerts so that people do not feel isolated at home, and countless acts of kindness have helped alleviate feelings of isolation and anxiety.
Such actions, whether intended to protect, support, comfort or overcome exclusion, show the difference that responsible, ethical citizenship can make. Of course, these gestures will not immunize anyone against the virus, but they make individuals and communities stronger and more resilient.
Active citizenship has a clear and critical role to play not only in enabling us to emerge strongly from this crisis, but also in helping us understand it and, crucially, think beyond it, to a future that is likely to be different, though in ways that are as yet indeterminate. Crises of this sort often result in far-reaching social and economic change. And we need critical, compassionate citizens to ensure the future is both fair and inclusive.
While there is a danger that the crisis will deepen inequalities and hit poorer communities to a disproportionate extent, it also presents us with an opportunity: to realize that we are all in this together and to gather our resources to common purpose.
This is why global citizenship education (GCED) matters. GCED is UNESCO’s response to global challenges, such as inequality and extremism, that threaten peace and sustainability. Building on the human rights education tradition, it aims to empower learners of all ages to take on active roles at both global and local levels in overcoming such challenges and creating a world that is more peaceful, tolerant, inclusive and secure.
It has become obvious in recent years that the achievement of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals depends on the cultivation of this sort of citizenship. The advent of the COVID-19 crisis makes the need for GCED still more acute. But it also, in a way, creates a space for it. It makes it more obvious than ever that global security and prosperity depend on taking everyone with us. We can no longer afford to leave any community behind.
The circumstances through which we are living are a pointed reminder of the crucial role citizenship education plays in finding global solutions to global challenges. It is essential in building bridges to a future that is safe, fair and inclusive.
Christiana Nikolitsa-Winter is a Programme Specialist at UIL