UN says sustainable development goals remain best option to recover from COVID-19

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Countries will be better placed to recover from the human and economic devastation caused by COVID-19 by accelerating efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), according to a policy brief issued by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) on Monday.

While it is still unclear what the ultimate effect of the coronavirus will be, the initial assessments are sobering, with enormous losses of lives and livelihoods. The death toll, at close to half a million, is still climbing.

Initial assessments show that there are immense risks to failing to act swiftly and in a coordinated manner. Global GDP is expected to contract by 5.2 per cent in 2020, the largest contraction in economic activity since the Great Depression, and far worse than the 2008-2009 global financial crisis. In 2020 alone, millions of people—estimates range from around 35 to 60 million—could be pushed into extreme poverty, reversing the declining global trend of the last twenty-plus years. Some 1.6 billion people working in the informal sector including the gig economy are estimated to be at risk of losing their livelihoods, many of whom lack access to any form of social protection. 

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An additional 10 million of the world’s children could face acute malnutrition, and the number of people facing acute food insecurity could almost double relative to 2019, rising to 265 million. School closures have affected over 90 per cent of the world’s student population—1.6 billion children and youth. More detailed data on the world’s sustainable development efforts will be announced on 7 July in the Sustainable Development Goals Progress Report 2020. 

Decisions taken now on whether to return to the pre-pandemic world or to one that is more sustainable and equitable will help shape future outcomes. The policy brief warns that if coronavirus responses are ad-hoc, underfunded and without a view to long-term goals, decades of progress toward sustainable development stand to be reversed. 

Alternatively, as countries begin to move towards recovery, the brief states that “the thoughtful and targeted actions can place the world on a robust trajectory towards achieving the SDGs.”

Past progress toward achieving many of the goals is a factor in lessening the severity of impacts on lives and economies. For example, achieving SDG 6—access to clean water—is necessary to enable people to wash one’s hands regularly, which is one of the top virus-repelling strategies recommended by the World Health Organization. SDG 11, which calls for sustainable cities and communities, has proven critical for reducing the exposure to the virus for those living in crowded places or without access to basic services. And SDG 3 concerns the need to address pre-existing health conditions such as non-communicable diseases, which have been identified as a major factor in more severe COVID cases. 

Past progress in promoting decent work (SDG 8), increasing access to quality health care (SDG 3) and ensuring internet access for school and work (SDG 9) help mitigate the severity of adverse impacts.

The policy brief contends the key concern of the SDGs—to leave no one behind—must be central to planners and decision makers while developing COVID-19 recovery policies. These policies should be created with an eye towards protecting vulnerable groups including young people who face unemployment, children who have no access to online learning opportunities, and women, who face a disproportionate increase in the burden of care work as well as greater risk of domestic violence. 

The SDGs can serve as preventive medicine against future shocks, but responses will have to deviate far from business as usual, using this pause to adopt more equitable and sustainable ways forward.

For instance, with oil prices at historic lows and employment in the sector shrinking, we can initiate a just transition for workers to the green economy while cancelling fuel subsidies and introducing carbon taxes. This could set the stage for meeting the most ambitious goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change while also achieving the SDGs.

To ward off the worst effects of COVID-19, countries should prioritize action in three areas:  protecting progress already made towards the SDGs, accelerating the universal provision of quality basic services, and maintaining the environmental gains of this period to reverse trends in the degradation of nature.

The brief concludes that it is still possible to realize the global goals but that greater coherence and coordination of national actions are required, as well as a stronger global partnership for development. In addition, the UN system must stand ready to facilitate progress in all these areas. 


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