People have a right to access the information they need during the COVID-19 pandemic. But the format and language of that information need to evolve as COVID-19 spreads to nations with lower literacy rates and more vulnerable groups of people.
The information should be easy for people to find, understand and use. It’s unwise to assume that written formats are always the most efficient way to convey information. As the disease rapidly expands into countries with lower rates of literacy, organizations involved in the response need to shift focus from written information to developing significantly more pictorial, audio, and video content.
That is the best way to ensure that older people, women, and other vulnerable people in those countries have the best chance of understanding lifesaving information.
It’s also a necessary adjustment where infection control limits in-person community engagement. Social media, SMS services, call centers, television, and radio will be essential communication channels. Formats need to diversify accordingly if the message is to get across.
Literacy dynamics are rapidly changing
COVID-19 is now rapidly spreading in countries with lower literacy rates. The average literacy rate in countries with confirmed COVID-19 cases on February 19 was 94%. One month later it was 89%.
The highest rates of change in new COVID-19 cases being recorded are predominantly in countries with lower literacy rates. Between March 16 and 22, the 15 countries with the highest percentage change of new COVID-19 cases had an average literacy rate of 85%. These include countries like Cambodia, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, DRC, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Togo. All these countries saw increases in confirmed cases of at least 900% during this seven-day period.
Women’s literacy rates are often lower than men’s
In countries where UNESCO measures literacy, average literacy rates are 6% higher for men than for women. For example in Yemen, 73% of men and only 35% of women above the age of 15 can read or write a basic sentence about their life, a difference of 38%. The gender difference is also stark in Pakistan (25%), DRC (23%) and Mali (20%).
The map below highlights the gender difference in adult literacy in individual countries. Orange shading indicates countries where male literacy rates are higher than female literacy rates. Blue shading indicates the few countries where female literacy rates are higher than male literacy rates.
Older people often have lower literacy rates than people under 65
In many countries, older people are less likely to be able to read than younger adults. This limits their ability to access written information on COVID-19.
The average elderly literacy rate in countries UNESCO reports literacy data for, is 65%. UNESCO defines elderly people as those aged 65 or older. In countries with documented literacy rates from the same year, people aged between 15 and 64 have an average literacy rate 19% higher than people 65 years or older. The difference is greatest in Libya (63%), Timor-Leste (53%), Cabo Verde (50%), and Iran (49%).
Use data to design more inclusive communication strategies
To design effective COVID-19 communication strategies, responders need reliable data about language and literacy. As part of our COVID-19 response, we are making the necessary data openly available.
This is part of a Translators without Borders initiative to help make targeted information strategies more data driven. Language and literacy maps and datasets exist for DRC, Guatemala, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Ukraine, and Zambia.
Along with these existing maps and the interactive global literacy map above, we are also scaling up our efforts to release more subnational language and literacy data for countries affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. This week we released national and sub-national data for Thailand. We will release more datasets and data visualizations over the next few weeks and months, so stay tuned to our COVID-19 webpage or the Humanitarian Data Exchange for updates.
We derived most of those datasets from historical census data, typically available down to the Admin 2 (district or county) level. Such data is most useful when it is analyzed alongside up-to-date information on language and communication needs. To help us with our ongoing language data initiative, we urge organizations to include four simple language questions in needs assessments and surveys related to COVID-19.
Make content available in multiple formats
Organizations responding to the pandemic should use improved data to develop communication strategies that are geared to the needs of the target population. Preparedness is a critical component of this. Organizations should develop content in as many formats as possible, recognizing that pictorial, audio, and video content is easier to access and absorb for many people. Additionally, older people often benefit from content that is easier to read. This requires incorporating design considerations such as larger fonts and good contrast. Plain-language principles also offer a useful model for creating clear and concise written and verbal content. The WHO proposes several key principles for improving understanding of health content.
In the rapidly evolving context of the COVID-19 response, organizations should complement written information with other formats. This is vital to ensure information is both believed and understood. We need to do this early to ensure people living in places with lower literacy levels don’t receive information too late to make a difference.
Written by Eric DeLuca, Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning Manager, Translators without Borders
The project is funded by the H2H Fund, a funding mechanism for H2H Network members. The fund is a rapid funding vehicle for network members responding to humanitarian crises.