Katarina Popovic is Secretary General at the International Council for Adult Education (ICAE)
There are currently two lines of thought about the role of pandemic related education, most importantly our response to the new learning requirements that COVID-19 is posing for individuals, families and communities.
On one hand, we have the immediate and very obvious ways in which education could help us to cope with the new situation that COVID-19 presents. For example, we have learned a lot about how to prevent infection in everyday life and have adapted new behaviors. This Includes concepts we have all become increasingly familiar with; such as physical distancing, hand washing, face covering, staying indoors and even working from home where possible. Education has also played a role in teaching us how to better use digital technology, as it enables us to continue learning, schooling, finding a job or working from home. These are some of the immediate and practical effects of education that we have witnessed in the recent months.
At the same time, we also need to think about education in the context of other broader, more sustainable education approaches like GCE. Here, there is even more to consider as the role of education is nuanced and of utmost importance. Civic education, for example, can raise awareness about the importance of upholding human rights during the pandemic. This includes awareness towards the ways in which we participate in democratic societies and decision making. Also central is sharing information and raising awareness about the global issues of sustainable development, anthropogenic climate change and environmental degradation that could cause or encourage the spread of new diseases (ie: large-scale deforestation, habitat degradation and fragmentation, agriculture intensification, trade in species and plants, eating habits etc).
In these ways, we have identified both practical and theoretical behaviors and skills that education can bring to the public during this time. I would also argue that ultimately, civic education has a duty to raising awareness and taking a realistic approach to what the new measures and new habits mean in the global context.
With that in mind, here are a few points that we need to raise awareness about during this time.
Physical distancing is a luxury for the few
Physical distancing is not possible for many communities and countries, especially in the Global South, but also in remote areas, cities and neighborhoods in the North. It is imperative to note that when preventive measures become social norms that are reluctant to any contextualization or critical reflection, physical distancing can easily lead to social distancing and consequently increase existing gaps in the society or create new ones. Physical distancing, avoiding gathering and working from home are luxuries that millions cannot afford, so calling for such might be cynical.
Constricting access to education and employment opportunities
For populations that make their daily living working outside, not adhering to physical distancing rules is a matter of survival rather than irresponsible behaviour. Many vulnerable groups have a very high risk of unemployment, as well as threats to their livelihoods (especially for farmers, small and micro enterprises...). Working from home is a kind of ’luxury’ available only for a small number of privileged people and a few countries. Increase of digital and ICT use in education can easily lead to 1) an increased digital gap, and 2) further exclusion and reduced access to education and economic opportunity for many individuals and communities. There are already some estimations that economic consequences will lead to increased inequalities, especially within the countries, since the poorest one will likely be worst hit by pandemic.
Increasing threat to democracy
The new social norms and economic measures that arise as a response to the pandemic could easily serve to justify exclusion, unnecessary distancing and increased social inequalities. The experiences and analysis up until this point show that girls and women are particularly affected and exposed to exclusion, poverty and violence in the new situation.
Many developing countries face additional challenges with increased threats to democracy and human rights – their ways of action and engagement are limited, and authoritarian regimes use the opportunity for further cuts in civic rights, freedom of speech, participation of citizens etc. Vulnerable and marginalized communities, especially in high density, socio-economically unequal and predominantly migrant areas, can be additionally affected by the new measures; the social distance and stigmatization can increase, as well as harassment based on political, racial or religious biases. Further on, access to education and learning opportunities (as well as access to other social services), have become jeopardized especially for vulnerable groups.
Taking the Global context into account
Ultimately, Global Citizenship Education cannot simply advocate for the new approaches and measures that are suitable for developed countries and communities, but needs to take into account the global context, and what these measures / new ways of behavior / new approaches to learning mean for other regions. This is especially true for vulnerable communities – not only in developing countries, but also for marginalized and excluded individuals and communities in developed European countries. If we are to ignore this, the pandemic could leave many people behind, even after its health consequences are over.
We are not in the same boat
The recent tweet by Damian Barr “We are not all in the same boat. We are all in the same storm” has been doing the rounds of social media, and his explanation that some are in yachts and ‘some have just the one oar.’ We are in the same storm (corona-storm), but we are hit in a very different way and the consequences make a huge difference. Therefore, GCE that helps us to think about ‘new normal’ must also re-think and critically address the problems of ‘old normal’ - uneven global development, power structures, and socio-economic disparities that lead to increased gaps, widen inequalities and injustice, with every new crises.