OPINION: We should look to Cuba for more than just its doctors and cigars

A handful of the Cuban medical brigade members after arriving at O.R. International Airport in the early hours of Monday. (Twitter, Department of Health: Covid-19)
A handful of the Cuban medical brigade members after arriving at O.R. International Airport in the early hours of Monday. (Twitter, Department of Health: Covid-19)

The 1961 Cuban literacy campaign was an eight-month long effort to address illiteracy through deployment of literacy brigades to the countryside, writes Papama Mnqandi.

More than 200 health professionals who form part of a specialised Cuban Medical Brigade (CMB) arrived at O.R. Tambo International Airport on Sunday 26 April 2020.

In a recent opinion piece published in the Daily Dispatch on 23 April 2020, I recalled the Cuban literacy campaign of 1961 as a possible response to assist in efforts against Covid-19.

I stated that if the 2020 academic year is as good as lost, then we can look to the Cubans for more than just doctors and cigars.

Each of us have a duty to apply our minds to the complexities of our contemporary situation.

That is the primary role of active and conscious citizenry in a democracy and the lockdown period is a call for us to imagine the evolutionary potential of our present.

The press statement that had announced the CMB deplyoment here further noted that they will be deployed in different provinces of the country, in accordance with strategic plans of the health department.

It also emphasised that: "These times require cooperation and solidarity and that if we act together, the propagation of the virus will be halted, in a faster and more cost-effective manner."

It is to this "acting together for halting the spread of the virus in a faster and cost-effective manner" that I wish to orientate my imagination, taking cognisance of the impact of the pandemic on the social, psychological, spiritual, economic and well-being of the people of Africa.

My aim is to demonstrate through the South African case how measures put in place, pandemic planning, outbreak responses, recovery programmes and a post outbreak plan can all be leveraged for modalities that can be workable throughout the mother continent.

This is not an attempt to fall into the trap of South African exceptionalism but an acknowledgement of the immense efforts already underway.

In a recent statement, the World Health Organisation (WHO) stated that the strategy in South Africa was based on preparation, primary prevention, lockdown and enhanced surveillance, with 67 mobile lab units around the country and 28 000 community health workers trained in case detection.

The WHO’s Mike Ryan stated that there is a lot of innovation taking place in Africa in general and that South Africa’s approach to bringing the disease under control was proof of how African countries were in many ways leading the global fight against the pandemic and showing the way.

In closing, the WHO stated that it is important that studies in Africa are led by principal investigators from African institutions while reaching out to collaborators in other parts of the world.

There is no greater example of this than the arrival of the CMB.

It is to the pandemic's impact on the education system that I wish to now focus my attention, knowing full well that the pandemic has brought more pressure onto the system of governance, the economy and life as we know it.

The challenges that plague the education system are known and widely documented.

Often the criticism enjoys more publicity than the many programmes and interventions already underway to turn the tide.

However, extraordinary times call for unprecedented measures and I believe that with time lost, cramming curriculum 2020 into the remainder of the year would amount to a missed opportunity.

This is the moment to target our literacy crisis.

University Research Professor, Dr Nic Spaull of Stellenbosch University stated at the Serious Social Investing Conference of 2018 that "78% of students cannot read for meaning by Grade 4 and that this is a key binding constraint in SA Education".

Every year though, we adjust our pass marks to accommodate cohorts whose illiteracy runs unabated.

It is known that the 4IR is upon us and there has been much talk about digitising classrooms and going virtual.

Many of our schools are still without access to the necessary infrastructure and Covid-19 has laid bare that horrible truth while the governance system is under severe pressure to roll out post Covid-19 readiness plans across sectors.

At this point though, there is still much uncertainty.

But if we pause, reset institutions and make them more responsive to the various publics, their continuities and discontinuities - what remains of 2020 presents us with an opportunity to turn the tide.

It could be dubbed our "year of education" even amidst the pandemic.

The Education Ministry, the Presidency and all stakeholders could collectively find enough justification and shared value at a time like this to target literacy.

The "health brigades" should be coupled with "literacy brigades" to roll out tablets and books and use the rest of the year to combat Covid-19 and illiteracy with every family and community.

This will allow the administration to arm each learner with necessary digital tools for remote learning while keeping them safely in soft lockdown with their families.

The more affluent schools have been forging ahead with teaching because of their advantage in this regard, demonstrating the severe inequalities that still haunt our nation.

In order to ensure that no child is left behind again, 2020 must become the catch up year to digital readiness.

This also means that the psychological pressures and fears of teachers can be dealt with through necessary transition workshops and training.

With teachers and learners away from their traditional learning sites, the construction industry could also have less risks to plan for while strategising on how to return to abandoned school construction sites with the needed extensive Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) plans.

Such a strategy could also mean that learners use any school in their area as a resource centre for downloading material and troubleshooting with technical support under controlled and scheduled time - all the while remaining at home and working through the literature and necessary cognitive exercises ahead of 2021.

This would trigger cross-generational family participation, turning every home into a reading hive.

The telecoms companies in partnership with the state must hurry to catch up in rolling out tablets and data packages to ensure that the nation starts reading.

Our regional libraries must also serve to loan books to even the most remote village learners at this time while mobile apps can serve to co-ordinate the borrowing and tracking of books.

Experts can deploy literacy training programmes such as getting learners to do speed reading exercises with their families and with apps on their tablets.

The South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) stated that all the necessary health precautions must be taken seriously to avoid schools and colleges being new epicentres of the virus.

This is as per their call for strict health protocols before pupils and teachers return to school.

With this much uncertainty, a month already lost to first phase of Covid-19 lockdown and the state having so many guarantees to make to the teachers’ union alone, rushing back to class will punish the education system and create new crises for the health department and the presidency, and in turn, undoing all that the WHO had praised.

Thus an Essential literacy campaign (ELC), coupled with the deployment of medical brigades can simulate a real lived experience of what it means to leapfrog into the digital classroom and offer to Africa a precedent. 

It will also offer relief to a system that has been caught off-guard and safeguard the futures of our children.

This will put to test the institutional innovation and agility to manage the complexity of transition to post Covid-19 readiness, for collective health and well-being.

Without these hallmarks of a capable, developmental and entrepreneurial state, we will not meet our 2030 SDG target and that of life in the 4IR.

The country needs to embark on an essential literacy campaign right now.

The 1961 Cuban literacy campaign was an eight-month long effort to address illiteracy through deployment of literacy brigades to the countryside.

It resulted in some 700 000 adults being taught to read and write and raising the national literacy rate from 77% to 96%.

- Papama Mnqandi is an Architectural Professional registered with the South African Council of the Architectural Profession (SACAP). He serves as Provincial Chair of the BMF Young Professionals in the Eastern Cape. He writes in his personal capacity

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