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COVID-19 Derails the SDGs: The Pandemic Effect on Sustainable Development

2020 manifested, in more than one way, the ability of human beings to endure almost anything. Getting hit by one of the worst pandemics of the century left millions of lives lost, an unprecedented economic toll and pushed back sustainability efforts for at least a decade, if not more. The crisis endangered decades of hard work put into the most urgent transition to greener and more robust economies.

The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2020 suggests that even before COVID-19 hit the world, progress towards the SDGs remained uneven and there was a common lack of pro-activeness from the governments around the world.  According to UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, “Had the paradigm shift envisioned by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development been fully embraced over the past six years, the world would have been better prepared to face this crisis – with stronger health systems, expanded social protection coverage, the resilience that comes from more equal societies, and a healthier natural environment.”

While complete adaptation of the SDGs could have left the world better prepared for such a pandemic, COVID-19 halted, or rather reversed decades of progress made in this direction. For the first time since the 1990s, global poverty has increased. There is an estimate increase of 119-124 million in global poor in 2020. An estimated 690 million people suffered from hunger in 2019 up by 60 million in last 5 years. Total deaths reported due to COVID-19 reached 3.7 million global by June 2021. About 90% of all countries reported disruptions to one or more essential health services. Children’s learning and wellbeing has been severely affected. Longstanding inequalities are intensifying as some children may never go back to school, some may be forced to marry or pushed into child labour.

While women played a central role in fighting the virus as frontline workers, the discrimination against them rose to unacceptably high levels. In Asia and Africa, more people are now without electricity which earlier had access due to increasing population and poverty in the regions. People working in unorganised sectors are at risk now more than ever. The informal nature of the employment prevents them from getting protection against the disease thus encouraging reverse migration which had a direct impact on the industry. The manufacturing sector was hit harder by the pandemic then it was during 2007-2008 global financial crisis. The plight of slum dwellers has only aggravated due to COVID-19.

Previously, global pandemics like the Spanish Flu of 1918 served as catalysts for social, political, and economic changes around the world. If this still holds true, 2021 will decide if we are on the right track for 2030. Despite the fact that COVID-19 has created such a havoc in the world, the pre-emptive attitude shown by the governments across the world to take the disease down is commendable. Even before the World Health Organization officially declared the pandemic outbreak in March 2020, several Asian countries began taking bold steps to safeguard their borders. The healthcare sector across the world was mobilized and it was just a matter of time that vaccines and medicines were developed for the new virus.  

While many developed countries have been able to finance robust counter-cyclical fiscal responses to the crisis, developing countries, who face higher interest rates and service fees, are either struggling to service their debts or are directing finance that could be used to support health and social sectors towards paying back debts.

While the gap remains, one should not be dismissive of the fact that COVID-19 is accelerating change across the ecosystem, forcing public and private players to innovate and adapt in a short period of time. According to a survey by global think-tank Official Monetary and Financial Institutions Forum (OMFIF), COVID-19 pandemic has forced the central banks and sovereign wealth funds to shift to a greener investment strategy. The findings of the survey showed the scale and speed at which ESG factors are now driving investment decisions. The crisis has brought out the importance of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals in time. It acted as an eye opener for the world exposing the social inequalities prevalent and at the same time reassured the mankind of its capabilities to endure and come out victorious of every crisis possible.

The report by Financial Stability Board emphasises on the fact that COVID-19 has reinforced the need to promote resilience amidst rapid technological change in the economy and the global financial system. Work-from-home arrangements propelled the adoption of new technologies and accelerated digitalisation in financial services.

Moreover, the proactive attitude to fight against COVID-19 needs to be kept alive and should be directed towards attaining the SDGs, which now seem to be more important and achievable than before. The private sector has always been heralded as the prime catalyst in mobilizing funds for the SDGs. The introduction of various instruments such as Green, Blue, and Sustainability Bonds have succeeded in channelling private funds into SDG aligned projects. COVID-19 recovery has presented itself as a huge investment opportunity and channelling private finances to bridge the gap between annual investment needs and current annual investment can accelerate the process even further. The objectives of the global strategy to respond to COVID by WHO can be applied directly towards realising the SDGs.