COVID-19: A wake-up call to invest in literacy

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the least advantaged the hardest and highlights the harsh reality of educational inequality. As we look to rebuild, we must ensure that the global literacy challenge is finally and decisively met, writes Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands, UNESCO Special Envoy on Literacy for Development.

© Princess Laurentien

COVID-19 has disrupted education worldwide in an unprecedented way. Millions of students have not been able to continue learning in schools, universities, vocational training institutions and adult learning programmes. Many governments responded to the pressing need to provide school children with learning possibilities via online and distance learning. Virtual lessons were adopted, home learning materials distributed and education provided through TV and radio or in open air spaces. These efforts were essential and undeniably very challenging for many governments, teachers and students alike as it demanded a reshuffling not only of delivery mechanisms but also of roles and responsibilities.

The crisis also shows us, with a frightening clarity, what consequences a lack of basic literacy skills can have. Some 773 million youth and adults globally lack basic levels of literacy and numeracy, two-thirds of them female. Most of these youth and adults face multiple disadvantages. They are often unable to acquire decent jobs, suffer from hunger and bad health, cannot make informed choices, and are excluded from social interaction and full participation in society.

For more than 10 years, I have advocated for universal literacy as UNESCO Special Envoy on Literacy for Development. The challenges we are witnessing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic are not new: literacy is of course covered by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG-4). The question is: are we equipped to cater to the special needs of these vulnerable groups? Are governments conscious enough of their vulnerabilities, also in the way they organize their communications?

How can these 773 million men and women have access to life-saving information when they are not able to read or write? How can they verify the information they are receiving if multiple sources differ in content? And how can mothers and fathers support their children with their school work in confinement when they themselves are non-literate? The answer is simple and sad: they barely can.

Non-literate youth and adults will most likely be the hardest hit by educational, social and economic impacts of COVID-19. This pandemic shows us the urgency of investing in literacy for everyone – young and old. We cannot leave anyone behind. We must act now.

It is critical that literacy for learners of all ages be integrated into global and national COVID-19 responses and recovery plans. We must ensure the continuity of learning, improved provision, and enhanced national lifelong learning systems and capacities. We must invest in open and distance learning opportunities. We must assist teachers in finding new ways to reach out to those lacking basic literacy skills. And we must provide adequate funding to ensure that skilled teachers are able to support their learners until they are able to read and write. The UNESCO Strategy for Youth and Adult Literacy and the work of the Global Alliance for Literacy are an ideal basis for these actions.

Let us use this crisis to tackle the challenges that were already staring us in the face, a long time before COVID-19 was in our midst. This pandemic should be the final wake-up call to put into practice what we actually already knew was necessary: to enable everyone to read and write so that they can play their full part in social and economic life and in the process of rebuilding and renewal that must follow in the aftermath of the pandemic.

We must prioritize the needs of those who were most disadvantaged before the pandemic began. This is essential if we are to make progress in meeting the commitments made by world leaders in adopting the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and in Sustainable Development Goal 4 on education in particular, with its target to ensure that all youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, achieve literacy and numeracy. Now, more than ever, we must ensure that the international community’s promise to ‘leave no one behind’ does not ring hollow.

Her Royal Highness Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands is UNESCO Special Envoy on Literacy for Development

5 thoughts on “COVID-19: A wake-up call to invest in literacy

  1. It is an ongoing tragedy that so many people are born into a lifetime of illiteracy. In the words of Gramsci, “the old is dying and the new cannot be born”. With the disruption to education brought about by Covid-19 there exists an opportunity, to embrace this interregnum, and to rebuild an education system that must include the 773 million Youth and Adults globally, that lack the most basic levels of literacy i.e. reading and spelling.
    Access to information has never been as plentiful, with the advent of digital online technology, and proper investment has to be made available to make this obtainable to everyone. We have worked in this burgeoning online education sector, for more than 10 years, and know first-hand the happiness and success that literacy can bring to parents, children and families. Learn to read – read to Learn.

  2. Great article about the situation of youth in the world of today where illiteracy is wide-ranging and those who are literate do not really care about the less fortunate in society.

    Technology is an important driver of progress but it can also deepen inequalities in areas in which poverty is widespread – What can we do to attain equity for children and youth, and in particular girls?

  3. me gusta el articulo ya que pone en evidencia la necesidad y la importancia de que los gobiernos inviertan en la alfabetización, lo que se traduce en invertir en la educación, se muestra la gran desigualdad que a nivel educativo son evidente de acuerdo a los estratos sociales . y el alto porcentaje de personas analfabeta y vulnerables que hay en el mundo… vale citar la frase de libertador Simón Bolívar ” Los pueblos avanzan al ritmo que avanza su educación”

  4. Thank you so much for focusing attention on this. I found this article as I was working on a similar article in Swedish to be published on the UN Literacy day on September 8th, and will quote from it.
    Hélène Boëthius, executive chair, ALEF, Adult Learning and Empowerment Facilitators,

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