Building Pandemic Literacy

Sudirman Said Head, Harkat Negeri Institute

IO – Countries around the world are now entering a new phase in combatting the Covid-19 global pandemic with the start of vaccination. Here are what we know from the mass media and/or official reports. First, the number of cases continues to increase, as well as deaths, but on the other hand we are also grateful for the improved Covid-19 handling capacity that has resulted in an increased number of survivors. Second, even though the public health crisis took place in plain view and with very obvious victims, in reality there are still many pros and cons that are damaging to public trust. We all know that to successfully handle a pandemic a high level of trust is needed in order for the public policy to cooperate most optimally. Third, a vaccination strategy should also receive greater attention, to ensure that it can be conducted smoothly and build immunity among the people, so that the spread of the virus can be impeded or brought under control. 

This boils down to two main aspects, namely: (1) a life-threatening situation that can result in permanent damage or even death of those infected; and (2) ongoing efforts to find the best way out of the fraught situation, as soon as possible. The pros and cons are basically different reactions to the same goal. Thus, it can be said that the underlying problem which complicates the problem is knowledge. This means that if accurate information about a pandemic is sufficient and widespread, then familiarisation or law enforcement is no longer needed, because all citizens will be willing to follow health protocols. We will also witness knowledge being spread by the people among themselves. Here, citizens are not merely consumers of knowledge imparted from the top, but also producers of knowledge throughout society. Why hasn’t this happened? 


When we talk about literacy, we tend to mean the ability to read, write and use numeracy. But now the term has expanded to encapsulate a broader meaning, about a person’s knowledge of a particular subject or field, and a movement to impart knowledge about a larger group of subjects in a systematic way, through education. In this respect, literacy basically implies three main aspects: subjects, materials and methods. In a conventional sense, as is common in the school system, there is a clear distinction between “producers” (teachers) and “consumers” (students). We know that the education sector continues to seek out the best method to equip an individual, not only with cognitive but also affective and conative abilities. All three are vital for nation-building, through schooling with all its mechanisms. 

Of course, literacy here doesn’t precisely relate to how the school system works, although some basic principles still apply. Literacy in practice is a social or learning activity that is not confined by certain provisions. In an open world, where everyone can get information and knowledge easily from any source, maybe we need to interpret literacy differently than in the past. The process here is characterized by, first, multi-directional interaction that is reciprocal. There is no single vantage point. Second, no one can claim to be a producer and relegate others to a role as consumers. Everyone is both producer and consumer. And third, the learning method is inseparable from things we do in daily life. 

This is the framework within which we want to develop pandemic literacy. We believe that the idea isn’t something new. However, it isn’t about novelty, but how to make this idea part of our joint efforts to quickly find the best way to break the chains of Covid-19 transmission. By putting the pandemic into a literacy framework, we will have a new, complementary perspective. From this point of view, a pandemic (and its effects) will be viewed not simply as something that must be avoided completely, but also studied together. 


If the pandemic itself is learning material, then what should be our common concern? There are three things. First, in the short term, together we need to learn how to stop the virus from spreading, or what the community should do collectively to contain transmission. This should become a public discourse. Perhaps academics can facilitate the intense public discussion on worthy topics, such as: (a) the extent to which the public understands the pandemic itself so we can get the big picture regarding the level and quality of public understanding; and (b) the extent to which the public responds to health protocols and what they are doing to halt the spread of the virus. This study aims to look at the public’s experience in overcoming the pandemic in the hope that various challenges in a variety of fields can be addressed effectively. 

This initial information can be a stepping stone to mapping knowledge and community-organized initiatives. To find the most effective method to deal with the pandemic, further discussion is needed, where the initial information can serve as the main material. To arrive at this point, it is necessary to find out whether: (a) it is possible for the public to become producers of knowledge. It must be admitted that during this pandemic, knowledge is one-directional. Information and knowledge mostly come from government authorities, and the public are merely consumers. It becomes a problem when there is a lack of trust between the two sides. As a result, it become difficult to distribute the information produced. Therefore, it is important to think of a way for the public to become producers of knowledge and information, so that messages can be spread horizontally, complementing vertical ones. (b) it is possible that social restrictions are self-imposed, not through policies, or even coercive measures. This means they are initiated by citizens, so that there is a common belief among them that overcoming a pandemic can be only be effective if and only if the community imposes a restriction on itself, willingly or voluntarily. This model is considered more effective as, any risk or consequence that arises will be handled by the community itself. This can be a litmus test for the long-standing gotong royong (mutual cooperation) tradition; and (c) a joint effort neered by citizens to independently conduct social restrictions with all other societal elements in the form of a grassroot movement, supported by the government and private sector. This synergy will be formidable in overcoming the pandemic. 

Second, in the medium term, mitigating the pandemic impact, especially the economic downturn. As a nation, we need broader, jointly- organised cooperation to revive the national economy. Academics can also become facilitators in the dialogue and collaboration process. Having a facilitator will certainly make it easier to set the dialogue agenda and bridge various parties. The academics, acting as neutral parties, will certainly gain the trust to be the driver of the whole process. There are several steps that need to be taken: (i) comprehensive mapping of the economic fallout; (ii) pooling resources, from the government and the private sector, as well as citizens; and (iii) public study to come up with a common goal/roadmap to jointly revive the national economy. 

Third, in the long term, preparing a comprehensive recovery plan. This doesn’t mean that we simply return to the “old normal.” There needs to be a fundamental and strategic public discussion. Fundamental because it will radically question our current way of life, as to whether or not it is healthy. Strategic because we will be forced to think for the distant future as what we intend to achieve in the aftermath of the pandemic. The future is certainly a new normal, one we enter not just physically and euphorically, but also knowledgeably. This means that all the knowledge produced, including the knowledge to emerge stronger together, will become a template of how the nation will move forward. They will become learning material and new knowledge. That is the essence of pandemic literacy.