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The world anticipates the worst economic fallout since the Great Depression – the crisis has touched all segments of the population, all sectors of the economy, and all areas of the world. Not surprisingly, it has not only exposed but exacerbated harsh and profound inequalities within and among countries – turning back decades of progress. There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has shaken the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to its very core. Now, what little progress had been made has been stopped in its tracks.

The UN’s 2020 report on the SDGs reveals that even before COVID-19, baseline projections suggested that 6 percent of the global population would still be living in extreme poverty in 2030, missing the target of ending poverty. An estimated 25.9 per cent of the global population – 2 billion people – were affected by moderate or severe food insecurity in 2019, an increase from 22.4 per cent in 2014. At the global level, hunger and food insecurity have been on the rise, and malnutrition still affects millions of children. In 2020, up to 132 million more people may suffer from undernourishment because of COVID-19.

SDG 3 is the most obvious casualty. Until the end of 2019, advances in many areas of health continued, but the rate of progress was not sufficient to meet most Goal 3 targets. In 2020, childhood vaccination programs have stalled in 70 countries with hundreds of thousands of additional under-5 deaths expected along with tens of thousands of additional maternal deaths.

In 2020, as COVID-19 spreads across the globe, more than 190 countries have implemented nationwide school closures. About 90 per cent of all students (1.57 billion) were out of school. Although distance-learning solutions are provided in four out of five countries with school closures, at least 500 million children and youth are currently excluded from these options. The sheer magnitude of school closures is likely to set back progress on access to education. Similarly, the coronavirus pandemic lockdowns is intensifying the risk of violence against women and girls, setting back progress to end child marriage and female genital mutilation, and laying more burden of unpaid work on women. Cases of domestic violence have increased by 30% in some countries.

The pandemic has brought to the fore the critical importance of water, sanitation and hygiene for protecting human health. Despite progress, 3 billion people worldwide lack basic hand washing facilities at home – the most effective method for COVID-19 prevention. Unless current rates of progress increase substantially, Goal 6 targets will not be met by 2030. The virus is also highlighting the urgent need for affordable and reliable energy – for hospitals and health facilities to treat patients, for communities to pump clean water and access vital information, and for out-of-school children to learn remotely. At the same time, the crisis is certain to stymie efforts towards Goal 7. Disruptions in supply chains could wreak havoc on energy services, and reduced incomes could limit people’s ability to pay for them.

Even before the pandemic, economic growth in LDCs, while rapid, failed to approach the 7 percent target. The steady rise in global labor productivity observed since 2000 may falter in the face of the coronavirus crisis – having an adverse impact on the world’s labor markets, particularly on workers in informal employment, the self-employed, daily wage earners and workers in sectors at the highest risk of disruption. The pandemic has dealt a severe blow to manufacturing and transport industries, causing disruptions in global value chains. Overall, it threatens to halt or even reverse progress towards SDG 8, 9, and other Goals.

Despite some positive signs – such as lower income inequality in some countries and preferential trade status for lower-income countries – inequality in its various forms persists. The COVID-19 crisis is making inequality worse. Global recession could squeeze development aid to developing countries thus putting pressure on development resources and consequently on SDG 10.

Even before the coronavirus, rapid urbanization meant that 4 billion people in the world’s cities faced worsening air pollution, inadequate infrastructure and services, and unplanned urban sprawl. Over 90% of COVID-19, cases are occurring in urban areas – potentially wiping out any recent gains in SDG 11.

Consumption and production drive the global economy, but also wreak havoc on planetary health through the unsustainable use of natural resources. The global material footprint is increasing faster than population growth and economic output. Fossil fuel subsidies remain a serious concern. An unacceptably high proportion of food is lost along the supply chain. And waste, including additional medical waste generated during the pandemic, is mounting.

The year 2019 was the second warmest on record and the end of the warmest decade (2010–2019), bringing with it massive wildfires, hurricanes, droughts, floods and other climate disasters across continents. Global temperatures are on track to rise as much as 3.2°C by the end of the century. To meet the 1.5°C – or even the 2°C – maximum target called for in the Paris Agreement, greenhouse gas emissions must begin falling by 7.6 per cent each year starting in 2020. However, despite the drastic reduction in human activity due to the COVID-19 crisis, the resulting 6 percent drop in emissions projected for 2020 falls short of Goal 13, and emissions are expected to rise as restrictions are lifted. The world is also falling short on 2020 targets to halt biodiversity loss. Two billion hectares of land on Earth are degraded, affecting some 3.2 billion people, driving species to extinction and intensifying climate change and consequently a rise in infectious diseases.

The COVID-19 pandemic is now threatening past achievements, with trade, foreign direct investment and remittances all projected to decline. It threatens to amplify and exploit fragilities across the globe and consequently making the achievement of Goals even more challenging. Point being, the goals to eliminate poverty, hunger and inequality, and to promote health, well-being and economic growth are headed for extinction. Goals and targets that rely on a growing global economy will not be met. For example, making energy affordable and clean will require the creation of new markets and financing. Boosting industry, innovation and infrastructure will require extra investment. Even before COVID-19, financing for the SDGs was $2.5 trillion short per year.

In many instances, countries will be unable to even record what is happening: according to a survey of 122 national statistics offices by the UN and the World Bank, 96% of such offices have fully or partially stopped face-to-face data collection.

Researchers both outside and inside the UN are questioning whether the goals are fit for the post-pandemic age. The Goals’ ambition is as important as ever, but fresh thinking is needed on the best ways to achieve them.

What, then, needs to be done?

First, cash-strapped governments need to prioritize a few broad strategic goals in light of COVID-19. Cost-benefit analysis should be done to underpin targets that are more achievable and interact positively with other goals. For example, according to Robin Naidoo, a lead scientist at the conservation group WWF-US in Washington DC, and Brendan Fisher, an environmental scientist at the University of Vermont in Burlington – 30 (18%) of the targets would help to lessen the likelihood of another global pandemic.

Second, SDGs should be decoupled from economic-growth targets. It has been long argued that economies should focus on development (improving well-being) rather than on growth (increasing economic output). There is ample evidence to prove that the benefits of economic growth have not been equitably shared and that it assigns values to disagreeable things – what Naidoo and Fisher call “dangerous jobs, traffic jams and pollution”. Moreover, because of the way growth is measured – policymakers are motivated to maximize short-term growth at the expense of clean air, water, peace etc.

Third, we need to find ways to recoup funds to support the SDGs. For example, overwhelming sums invested in military defence can be diverted to funding pathways to the SDGs. Corporate profits should be reined and explicit goals in line with SDGs should be incorporated in their agendas.

All in all, preference should be given to those goals and targets that address three important points: is this a priority in the pandemic world; is it about development not growth; and is the pathway to it “resilient” to global disarray?

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Dr.Izza Aftab

Dr.Izza Aftab is the Chairperson of the Economics Department at Information Technology University, Lahore. She is also the Director of the SDG Tech Lab and the Program Director of Safer Society for Children. She has a PhD in Economics from The New School University (NY, USA) and is a Fulbrighter.

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Ms. Sadaf Akbar

Ms. Akbar is a post-graduate in Applied Economics from FC College, Lahore. She is currently working as a Research Associate at the SDG Tech Lab established in collaboration with Information Technology University, Lahore, UNDP and UNFPA.