The underestimation of health literacy and the COVID-19 outbreak: an insight on The Lancet

Is it possible that, during a pandemic, governments take time and resources to invest in the health literacy of citizens? According to Leena Paakkari and Orkan Okan it is a complex, but not impossible task, especially as there is now extensive communication about the pandemic. Above all, this commitment is necessary.

Much has already been said about the infodemic that has accompanied the COVID-19 emergency since its inception. In their article on The Lancet, Paakkari and Okan argue that this infodemia has made it possible to identify the poor health education of citizens as a public health problem that is underestimated globally. As revealed in a 2015 study by Kristine Sørensen and colleagues, almost half of the adults involved in Europe reported that they have health literacy problems and lack sufficient skills to take care of their own and others’ health.

With the COVID-19 emergency, the authors continue, two aspects have become evident: the first, health literacy is important for the prevention of diseases, infectious and non infectious, on a global level; the second, the preparation of the system in dealing with infectious diseases must be integrated with individual preparation of citizens.

If most people act in a socially responsible and supportive way, reducing the risk of infection spreading, this does not eliminate the so-called free rider problem, i.e. those who – motivated by a wrong perception of risk or other personal priorities – ignore the request to observe protective and preventive behaviour, while enjoying the benefits given by those who comply with this request. This behaviour can be identified not only as incorrect, but also as unfair, especially to groups exposed to a higher risk.

According to the authors, therefore, increased health literacy could help people to understand the reasons behind the recommendations, and to reflect on the possible outcomes of their actions. It is important, however, that social responsibility, the value of solidarity and an understanding of what drives people towards certain choices are included in this literacy.

In conclusion,

The development of health literacy is even more topical than ever to prepare individuals for situations that require rapid reaction. Above all, health literacy should be seen in relation to social responsibility and solidarity, and is needed from both people in need of information and services and the individuals who provide them and assure their accessibility for the general population.

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