In combating pandemics, more can be gained by changing citizens’ behaviours than by relying solely on the medical route. In the current COVID-19 pandemic, the struggle to contain the outbreak and push back new infection figures will ultimately be won by training citizens how to avoid creating secondary transmission chains. The COVID-19 pandemic highlights the relationship between individual behaviour and group risk. Mass training of all social strata of a country’s entire population is therefore critical in mitigating the pandemic. The authors of this article argue that adult learning and education (ALE) can play a pivotal role particularly in countries where average literacy levels are low, as these are usually the same countries in which healthcare systems are more fragile. This article explains why ALE, especially the promotion of health literacy as part of ALE (which is itself part of lifelong learning), is necessary to enable individuals to make informed health-related decisions. Research has shown that low- or non-literate individuals are less responsive to
health education, less likely to use disease prevention services, and less likely to successfully manage chronic disease than literate citizens. The authors refer to the evaluation of the health literacy aspect of a large-scale adult literacy campaign launched in South Africa in 2008 which has yielded measurable outcomes and proved that the intervention had enabled adults to better understand health messages. They stress the importance of populations having at least a basic level of literacy and numeracy skills to enable them to receive and act on vital information during a pandemic or disaster. They argue that ALE should in fact be understood as an inherent element of every national emergency strategy, both in terms of prior preparation for possible future emergencies (such as pandemics, earthquakes, tornados, flooding, bushfires etc.), and in terms of reaction to a given emergency such as the current COVID-19 pandemic.