COVID-19 Must Not Cloud SDGs Commitments

Published on 5th May 2020

Our world today is dealing with a crisis of monumental proportions. The vicious, novel coronavirus is wreaking havoc across the globe, destroying lives and ruining livelihoods.  The primary cost of the pandemic as seen in the loss of human lives is distressing, but the secondary effects on the global economy, on livelihoods and on sustainable development prospects are even more alarming. The International Monetary Fund estimates that our world has entered into a recession, and while the full economic impact of the crisis is difficult to predict, the costs of the pandemic will no doubt be astronomical, with preliminary estimates placing it at a whopping US$2 trillion.

The pandemic has utterly exposed fundamental weaknesses in our global system. It has shown beyond doubt how the prevalence of poverty, weak health systems, lack of education, and above all sub-optimal global cooperation, is exacerbating the crisis.

If there was ever any doubt that our world faces common challenges, this pandemic should categorically put to rest that doubt. The on-going crisis has re-enforced the interdependence of our world. It has brought to the fore the urgent need for global action to meet people’s basic needs, to save our planet and to build a fairer and more secure world.  We are faced with common, global challenges that can only be solved through common, global solutions. After all, in a crisis like this we are only as strong as the weakest link. This is what the SDGs, the global blueprint to end poverty, protect our planet and ensure prosperity, are all about.

Sadly, this ferocious, sudden on-set pandemic has come at a time when the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were getting good traction and a significant number of countries were making good progress in their implementation.  As the world is seized with containing the spread of the virus and addressing its negative and debilitating impacts, the reality is that countries are resetting their priorities, and reallocating resources to deal with the pandemic. This certainly is the right thing to do because the priority now is to save lives, and we must do so at all costs. 

That is why we must all support the call by the United Nations for scaling up the immediate health response to suppress the transmission of the virus, to end the pandemic and to focus on people particularly, women, youth, low-wage workers, small and medium enterprises, the informal sector and vulnerable groups who are already at risk. Working together we can save lives, restore livelihood and bring the global economy back on track.

But what we cannot afford to do even at this crucial time is to shift resources away from priority SDGs actions. The response to the pandemic cannot be de-linked from actions on the SDGs. Indeed, achieving the SDGs will put us on a solid foundation and a firm path to dealing with global health risks and emerging infectious diseases. Achieving SDGs Goal 3 will mean strengthening the capacity of countries for early warning, risk reduction and management of national and global health risks.

This pandemic has manifestly exposed the crisis in global health systems. While it is severely undermining prospects for achieving global health by 2030, critically it is having direct far-reaching effects on all the other SDGs.

The emerging evidence of the broader impact of the crisis on our quest to achieve the SDGs must be troubling for all.  UNESCO estimates that some 1.25 billion students are affected by this pandemic, posing a serious challenge to the attainment of SDGs Goal 4; and according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) some 25 million people could lose their jobs with those in informal employment suffering most from lack of social protection during this pandemic. Unfortunately, these might just be the tip of the iceberg.

Crucially, in many parts of the world, the pandemic and its effects are being exacerbated by the crisis in delivering on clean water and sanitation targets (SDG Goal 6), weak economic growth and the absence of decent work (SDGs Goal 8), pervasive inequalities (SDGs Goal 10), and above all, a crisis in poverty (SDGs Goal 1) and food security (Goal 2). The World Bank estimates that the crisis will push some 11 million people into poverty.

Even at this stage in this deadly pandemic, we cannot deny the fact that the crisis is fast teaching us, as global citizens, the utmost value in being each other’s keeper, in working to leave no one behind, and in prioritising the needs of the most vulnerable in society.

As our world strives to deal with the challenges posed by the pandemic, we ultimately must seek to turn the crisis into an opportunity and ramp up actions necessary to achieve the SDGs. The spirit of solidarity, quick and robust action to defeat the virus that we are witnessing must be brought to bear on the implementation of the Goals. The quantum of stimulus and pecuniary compensation packages that is being made available to deal with the pandemic make it clear that, when it truly matters, the world has the resources to deal with pressing and existential challenges. The SDGs are one such challenge.

What is acutely needed is enhanced political will and commitment. Our world has the knowledge, capacity and innovation, and if we are ambitious enough, we can muster the full complement of resources needed to implement successfully the Goals. Buoyed by the spirit of solidarity, Governments, businesses, multi-lateral organisations and civil society have in the shortest possible time been able to raise billions, and in some cases, trillions to support efforts to combat this pandemic. If we attach the same level of importance and urgency to the fight against poverty, hunger, climate change and towards all the other goals, we will be well poised for success in this Decade of Action on the SDGs.

As the world responds to the effects of this brutal pandemic, and seeks to restore global prosperity, we must focus on addressing underlying factors in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals.  We must not, and cannot relent in our efforts, even amid this painful pandemic. While some of the gains on the SDGs have been eroded, this should not deflate our efforts. They should rather spur us to accelerate and deepen our efforts during this Decade of Action to ‘recover better’, and build a healthier, safer, fairer and a more prosperous world, so necessary in avoiding future pandemics.

By Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo

President of the Republic of Ghana and Co-chair of the UN Secretary-General’s Eminent Group of Advocates for the SDGs, and Erna Solberg, Prime Minister of Norway and Co-chair of the UN Secretary-General’s Eminent Group of Advocates for the SDGs.

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