COVID-19 set literacy back. Canada can help set things right.

  • National Newswatch

Do you remember your first day of school? Most people do. It is a landmark moment that marks the beginning of a journey of lifelong learning. Unfortunately, that moment has been indefinitely postponed for over 140 million children worldwide due to the COVID-19 pandemic.This year's International Literacy Day (September 8) is like no other. Not only does it fall in the middle of the largest education disruption in history, but for the first time in over 20 years, global poverty is set to rise, signalling that millions of children are about to be plunged into an even bleaker future than ever before.While the outlook is dire, Canada can play a role in setting things right. As we are well into a Canadian snap election campaign, party leaders have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to shape the world of tomorrow. By increasing Canadian aid and focusing political will on equipping children around the world with basic reading and math skills, Canada can help make learning poverty a thing of the past.In September 2015, Canada, along with all other 192 United Nations member states, adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development at the UN General Assembly. One of the goals was to ensure all youth achieve literacy and numeracy by 2030. However, the world was behind schedule even before the pandemic. More than half of all children were unable to read a simple text and it was projected that 200 million children would still be out of school by 2030.The harrowing fact is, the pandemic has already wiped out 20 years of education gains, with the most vulnerable children being hit the hardest. As existing inequities continue to grow, children marginalized because of poverty, conflict, displacement, natural disasters, gender, and/or disabilities are the ones most at risk of being left behind in the wake of COVID-19.The digital divide is one such inequity that has been exacerbated by the pandemic. In developed countries like Canada, children were able to continue learning despite school closures thanks to remote learning solutions. For at least 500 million children in low income countries though, remote learning is still out of reach. And for families who do have access to technology, children and caregivers largely do not have even the basic digital skills to engage with the technology.That is why the theme of International Literacy Day 2021 is “narrowing the digital divide.” While Canada has made impactful contributions to global education in the past, it has not invested nearly enough in education architecture. A determined shift that includes digital solutions is urgently needed to facilitate recovery in the post-pandemic era.Currently, Canada invests roughly 0.3% of its gross national income to international assistance. This is significantly behind other developed nations and Canada's own commitments. But we cannot afford to be complacent anymore. The global learning crisis is already costing governments over $129 billion per year and if we continue to relapse on our progress with poverty, this number will only climb. Canada needs steadfast and strategic political leadership that understands the key to saving billions of dollars and unleashing the potential of millions of people in the long run is an international assistance plan that matches the scale of the pandemic.By increasing international aid and funnelling it towards education, Canada can help fund technological infrastructure to reach more families, updates to teacher training, learning materials and tools that are disability-responsive, low-technology curricula, campaigns that empower girls to engage with technology, and more.If there is one reason to invest boldly in global education, it is that literacy is at the core of human dignity. It is what empowers people to live as they choose, manage their health, make a living, and participate in society. In more concrete terms, if every child in low income countries could read, 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty, which would be equivalent to a 12 percent decrease in world poverty. A literate world can achieve new heights of economic prosperity, develop climate resilience, and better resolve conflicts to enjoy lasting peace and stability.International assistance is a non-partisan issue. And reading is the gateway to wellness. As Canadians head into an election, looking to reaffirm our identity as a country in the new normal, all party leaders have an opportunity to lead the way on the world stage. By recommitting to improving education worldwide and investing in solutions that narrow the digital divide, Canada can pave the way to a just pandemic recovery for all.Charanya Thiyanavadivel is a Product Marketing Manager at the Institute for Health and Human Potential and volunteer advocate with Results Canada, a grassroots advocacy organization that mobilizes everyday people to end extreme poverty.