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The pandemic blow to SDGs

Sameera Zaman | November 24, 2021 00:00:00

The world will soon hit the two-year mark of the pandemic, with the first reported case of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) in Wuhan, China recorded on 31 December 2019, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Since then, the disease has spread rapidly around the globe, and the uncertainty regarding the future of the pandemic, human adaptation, and immunity, recovery still persists. Impacts over the last two years have branched out to various communities, their livelihoods, and their wellbeing, calling for substantial changes in their regular lives. Development that has focused on economic growth, by taking into account human development and sustainable use of natural resources has become increasingly crucial, especially in times of the pandemic. The Covid-19 pandemic calls for a renewed focus on achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as set the United Nations General Assembly in 2015, to be accomplished by 2030.

Even before the pandemic, the progress towards achieving SDGs was mixed and the world was not on the track to meet all the goals by 2030. However, developing countries are particularly vulnerable and the pandemic is likely to negatively impact the progress made on most of these goals, as mentioned in the UN Economic and Social report titled "Progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals" published in 2020.

In the light of the goal of No Poverty (SDG 1), the pandemic is expected to increase the number of people living below the poverty line, as they face challenges on the fronts of their income and livelihood options, with compound effects posed by the climate change and conflict. An estimated 119-124 million will be pushed back into poverty, and 80 per cent of these people are in middle-income countries, according to the UN Report. It was stated that 4 billion people still lacked social protection measures, and years of progress in eradicating poverty had been reversed as people continued to suffer from the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Food production and distribution were also disrupted by the pandemic, exacerbating the world hunger. With increased vulnerability and gaps in the global food systems, millions of people remain chronically undernourished, making it even more challenging to achieve the goal of Zero Hunger (SDG 2) by 2030. According to the UN, at least 83 million people were pushed to chronic hunger in the year 2020, as many still continued to encounter various forms of malnutrition. With the existing challenges, the full impact of the pandemic on achieving zero hunger may take several years to be revealed.

In the area of Good Health and Well-being (SDG 3), substantial progress had been made in the reduction of infant mortality rate, reduction of communicable diseases, and increase of immunisation coverage, even though approaching this goal globally by 2030 was not deemed fast enough. The pandemic has since then halted and even reversed much of the progress in the field of healthcare. 90 per cent of the countries still report disruptions to essential healthcare services due to Covid-19 restrictions along with an over-worked and limited health workforce.

The damaging impact of the pandemic on Quality Education (SDG 4) has been experienced first-hand by many, leading to what the UN has termed as a "generational catastrophe". Closure of schools due to lockdown measures did not only affect the learning of the children but their social and mental well-being as well. Children who lack access to remote learning and technology are at risk of permanent dropout, as some may be forced into child marriage or labour for survival.

Following this, the progress in achieving Gender Equality (SDG 5) has been reversed as well. According to the UN, almost 10 million girls are newly at risk of child marriage as the negative impacts of the pandemic start to manifest. There is a rise in violence against women, while increased unpaid care work is putting a disproportionate amount of stress on women. On the other hand, female healthcare workers have played crucial roles in Covid-19 response and recovery measures as front-line workers as well as managers and leaders of such efforts.

In the context of SDG 6 - Clean Water and Sanitation, we see one in three people globally still does not have access to basic handwashing facilities and safe water at home as reported by the UN. These facilities are critical in limiting the spread of the coronavirus and protecting public health. However, on a more positive note, the pandemic has led to a more inclusive integrated water resource management in many countries as online consultations became the norm for communication.

The use of Affordable and Clean Energy (SDG 7) has made significant progress globally, but according to the UN, there may be up to 660 million people having no access to it by 2030. The pandemic is also expected to disrupt the increasing electrification rate in the future. The use of non-renewable fuel will continue to pollute, specifically contributing to air pollution that can increase people's vulnerability to the Covid-19 virus as a result of weakened cardiovascular and respiratory health.

The lockdown measures and Covid-19 restrictions had devastating impacts on Economic Growth and Decent Employment (SDG 8). As published by the UN, the GDP per capita worldwide increased by 1.3 per cent in 2019, but following the pandemic, this rate dropped to 5.3 per cent in 2020. Informal sectors were specifically affected as 1.6 billion workers in such sectors were affected by the risk of falling into poverty and will continue to face difficulties with recovery of their livelihoods.

When it comes to SDG 9 - Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure, the pandemic brings scopes for innovative technologies and development for many countries. However, the disruption to the global value chains has influenced both the supply and demand for goods. Industries that are small-scale continue to struggle for their survival, while many high-technology industries such as pharmaceutical and electronic industries have recovered at a faster rate.

Existing inequality in terms of income, wealth, and opportunity has been exposed quickly by the pandemic, within and among different countries making it clear that Reduced Inequalities (SDG 10) is a difficult goal to achieve. The poorest countries are likely to be impacted the hardest as they struggle to manage their resources in their attempts to recover, and this can delay the progress of achieving the SDGs in these countries by a full decade, according to the UN.

The goal of building Sustainable Cities and Communities (SDG 11) appears to be unlikely in the middle of a pandemic. The impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, especially loss of jobs and the fall in economic growth are resulting in deterioration of the quality of life as more people are being forced to live in slums, making them even more vulnerable to the virus. Cities with high population density are also likely to face similar challenges. Public services such as public transportations were also inaccessible to many due to lockdown measures, reduced capacity, and closure of transport networks.

The pandemic can create new opportunities to work towards the goal of Sustainable Consumption and Production (SDG 12) as more circular, efficient, and equitable models for development can be explored. Due to the spread of the Covid-19, a substantial amount of waste is being generated in efforts to tackle the challenges - leftover disinfecting agents, plastic containers, discarded wet wipes, and single-use personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gloves, medical masks, goggles, face shields, and gowns are all contributing to the rising waste production.

The progress towards achieving the three environmental goals - Climate Action (SDG 13), Life Below Water (SDG 14), and Life on Land (SDG 15) was already lagging prior to the pandemic. Despite the drop in carbon dioxide emissions as a result of lockdown measures and disruption of economic activities, the concentrations of major greenhouse gases continued to increase in 2020 as reported by the UN, resulting in climate change and ocean acidification. The pandemic has also shifted the global attention towards itself as the global commitment to tackle the changing climate falters.

In order to establish Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions (SDG 16), the existing inequalities, discrimination, as well as human rights and protection system of a country need greater attention. Owing to the pandemic, many of such gaps were exposed. The rise in unemployment is likely to increase crimes such as trafficking according to the UN report. With the society amidst a pandemic, conflicts and unrest are likely to rise as well making it difficult to achieve this goal.

To achieve the SDGs, global cooperation is of high priority, which brings the focus to Partnerships for the Goals (SDG 17). Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, global partnerships are already strained as a result of limited financial resources, trade limitations and lack of access to technology and data. Although remittance flows to the developing nations dropped by only 1.6 per cent in 2020, Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) is expected to fall by 40 per cent according to the UN.

Apart from disruptions to achieving the SDGs, the pandemic has unveiled the gaps and limitations of our current global system, and taught us that global partnership and working together can help us overcome this crisis. All countries have not suffered equally and the varying degrees of socioeconomic effects caused by the pandemic still remain undetermined, especially from medium to a long-term perspective. It may still take some time until the full-effects of the pandemic become more evident. Just as suggested for achieving the SDGs, no one should be left behind and the world should continue to work towards a shared goal for People, Planet, Prosperity, Peace, and Partnership.

Sameera Zaman has completed her Master’s in Environmental Sciences from the University of Freiburg, Germany. Currently, she is working as a lecturer and research associate at the Centre for Sustainable Development (CSD), University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB). [email protected]

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