Covid-19: How has it affected the sustainable development goals?

In September 2015, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The agenda included 17 goals relating to people and the environment, termed the sustainable development goals (SDGs).

Covid-19 has had a negative impact on economies and livelihoods as well as health. It is expected that the pandemic will prove a significant setback in efforts to achieve the SDGs.

The impact of Covid-19 on the SDGs is the subject of an oral question to be asked in the House of Lords on 22 July 2020:

Lord Collins of Highbury to ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on global progress towards the United Nations sustainable development goals.

This article provides an overview of some of the ways Covid-19 is expected to affect progress towards the SDGs.

Health

Sustainable development goal 3 is to “ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages”. This is underpinned by 13 targets relating to:

  • maternal and child mortality;
  • communicable and non-communicable diseases;
  • substance abuse;
  • access to healthcare; and
  • building global healthcare and health research capacity.

Between 2015 and 2019 there was progress towards meeting the health-related targets. However, according to the UN, “the rate of progress was not sufficient to meet most goal 3 targets”.

On maternal and child mortality, the UN predicts that disruption to healthcare and reduced access to nutritious diets because of Covid-19 will result in hundreds of thousands of additional deaths of children under five in 2020, and tens of thousands of additional maternal deaths.

Routine vaccination programmes in many countries have been paused or disrupted because of the pandemic. Just over half of the 129 countries where data are available reported moderate-to-severe disruptions or a total suspension of vaccination services during March and April 2020.

Increases are expected in deaths from tuberculosis, malaria, and AIDS-related illnesses because of disruption to prevention campaigns, detection, and treatment. Deaths from these diseases are particularly expected to increase in sub-Saharan Africa.

Poverty and work

The first SDG is to “end poverty in all its forms everywhere”. This goal includes targets relating to absolute and relative poverty, property rights, access to finance, and social protection. SDG 8 relates to economic growth and decent work.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic struck, progress towards meeting these targets had slowed and the world was not on track to meet them by 2030. Baseline projections suggested that 6 percent of the global population would still be living in extreme poverty (under $1.90 per day) in 2030.

The UN predicts that, if the novel coronavirus follows current projections and economic activity recovers later in 2020, the poverty rate will reach 8.8 percent globally in 2020. This would be the first rise in global poverty since 1998 and would take rates close to the 2017 level. The increase above pre-Covid-19 projections equates to approximately 71 million additional people living in extreme poverty. The largest increases are expected to be seen in Southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

Prohibitions on in-person trading and other lockdown measures have particularly affected informal workers. The UN estimates that the income of informal workers globally dropped by 60 percent in the first month of the crisis, and up to 81 percent in some regions.

The pandemic is expected to increase unemployment. The International Labour Organisation predicts that global working hours could drop by 14 percent in the second quarter of 2020.

Hunger

SDG 2 is to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture”. It is measured against targets on access to food, malnutrition, agricultural productivity and sustainability, and biodiversity.

The pandemic is likely to increase food insecurity, and hence undernutrition, by reducing purchasing power and the capacity to produce and distribute food. In addition, rapid increases in demand for food and disruptions to supply chains in March and April 2020 led to increases in food prices in some countries.

Lockdown measures have negatively impacted small-scale farmers by closing businesses and markets.

Education

The fourth SDG is to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”. It includes targets on universal primary and secondary education, and on eliminating gender disparities in access to learning.

Schools closed in over 190 countries in response to the novel coronavirus. This negatively affected access to education. While some students continue to have access to teaching through distance learning, over 500 million students globally do not. If children do not attend school for months, it is likely to affect educational performance, with lower retention and graduation rates expected.

Reopening schools safely while the virus is still circulating will prove particularly difficult in places where appropriate sanitation measures are not available. The UN estimates that 35 percent of primary schools worldwide do not have basic handwashing facilities.

Environment

In contrast to other SDG areas, environmental goals could be said to have been aided by the pandemic. Dramatic reductions in travel and economic activity led to a 17 percent decrease in daily global carbon emissions in early April 2020. It is estimated that global carbon emissions will decrease between 4 and 7 percent during 2020, depending on the extent to which restrictions remain in place.

However, the UN states that this reduction in carbon emissions is still less than what would be needed to meet obligations in the Paris Agreement and to keep warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. In addition, it is believed that emissions are likely to rise again once restrictions are lifted.

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Image by Nikhita S at Unsplash.