The COVID-19 pandemic could be the greatest catastrophe facing the world since World War II. Having dealt a violent blow to the three pillars of sustainability – society, economy, and environment – it will come to be seen as a turning point in the history of the 21st century. What long-term effect will the pandemic have on the global striving for sustainability and will it require a redefinition of the Sustainable Development Goals?Many governments agree that the COVID-19 pandemic is the greatest catastrophe facing the world since World War II. Having dealt a violent blow to the three pillars of sustainability – society, economy, and environment – it will come to be seen as a turning point in the history of the 21st century. The resulting global dynamics and hindrance to growth raise major questions about the consequences of the new coronavirus for the 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations, or SDGs.
The International Labour Organisation estimates that 81 percent of the global workforce are currently affected by full or partial workplace closure. This is felt strongest by daily wagers, the self-employed, and small and medium enterprises, delaying the achievement of Goal 1: “No poverty.” Greater social protection for workers and employees in times of emergency and market volatility should therefore be included in Goal 8: “Decent Work Conditions and Economic Growth.” It should also comprise the strengthening of healthcare systems, because a strong economy needs a healthy population.
Before the virus outbreak, international organisations had made great strides towards accomplishing Goal 2: “Zero Hunger” since the launch of the Millennium Development Goals in 2000. However, the current crisis may affect food production and distribution. Trade barriers, like export bans, and the loss of income and livelihoods will only worsen the problem of hunger around the world. This reveals the need to invest more in sustainable food systems, especially in disadvantaged communities: local farming by the beneficiaries themselves, creating local jobs, and decreasing the need for transport services. This would reduce their vulnerability to global economic shocks in general.
Neglected Healthcare Systems
The goal most directly linked to the pandemic is Goal 3: “Good Health and Wellbeing.” The pandemic shows that poor healthcare in one country can, in the worst case, have consequences for all other countries and their healthcare systems. Only 6.3 to 10 percent of the world’s GDP are invested in healthcare systems, a reality that has come to haunt governments facing COVID-19.
The underinvestment in local production of medical supplies, hospitals, and human resources has resulted in weak, fragmented healthcare systems that are not accessible to enough people and unable to stem the COVID-19 crisis. Healthcare workers, particularly in middle- and lower-income countries, have long been suffering from low wages, insufficient social security, and low-quality capacity-building. Only 1 out of 13 sub-targets under Goal 3 considers the conditions of health workers – the real soldiers of today’s battle against the virus. Perhaps a greater emphasis in the SDGs would result in more investments on the ground.
However, prevention is key and the most basic measure to stop the spread of viruses – and their escalation into pandemics – is regular hand washing. Goal 6: “Clean Water and Sanitation” aims to redeem the fact that, according to the World Health Organisation, around 2.2 million people worldwide have no regular access to safe drinking water and sanitation facilities. Yet again, this affects primarily marginalised communities, such as in remote villages or slums.
New Avenues for Education
The current situation has pushed the world towards a radical change in the tools used to achieve Goal 4: “Quality Education.” Thousands of e-classes are being conducted while you are reading this article. Teachers and students have no choice but to stay connected through the multitude of e-learning resources and platforms, and self-learning became a factor in the education of less developed countries. Alongside a greater awareness – and use – of e-learning resources that already existed, many new ones have been created or made available for free, such as university e-libraries. While we are all learning from home, we not only save ourselves hours of commuting, but avoid CO2 emissions as well. All thanks to COVID-19! This raises the question: Why should online education be limited to times of crisis?
That said, the International Telecommunication Union has found that only 53.6 percent of the global population have access to the internet, with the majority disconnected in lower-income countries. Internet illiteracy of children and teachers, a lack of e-infrastructure and integration of ICT in the learning process are the three main challenges. The temporary loss of access to education puts less privileged children at risk of dropping out of school completely and become victims of child labour and marriages. It also contributes to food insecurity as school meals have become unavailable.
Setbacks for Women
Even Goal 5: “Gender Equality” has not escaped the pandemic impact. As lockdowns keep people at home, domestic violence is soaring globally. The absence or minimum availability of legal avenues and women NGOs has worsened the problem. Women also constitute 70 percent of all healthcare workers, which puts them at greater risk of infection and may overburden them with the support of family members who lost their jobs.
Goal 10: “Reducing Inequalities” is a goal that touches upon all SDGs. A particularly interesting angle exposed by the pandemic is the disregard in developed countries for the role of migrant workers. For example, every year thousands of female farmers travel to Western European countries in the harvest time to earn a few pennies to feed their families, mostly from Morocco, Romania, and Bulgaria. This year, the pandemic has denied them this opportunity. This left European farmers helpless in saving their crops. “You can cushion a bad crop, but when you have 80 percent of your production ready to be picked and no one to do it, you feel powerless," one farmer has told the media. This threatens food security and highlights the importance of seasonal labour migration. Maybe this will open Europe’s eyes to the reality behind the anti-immigrant policies of the right-wing parties they have elected.
Positive Effects on Innovation and Environment
The impact of the crisis on Goal 9: “Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure” was positive to a great extent. Efforts by the Central Bank of Egypt to decrease the handling of cash, a significant route of viral transmission, have led to innovation and developments in e-infrastructure. Governmental services have integrated e-wallets into their systems and fees on cash transfers were waived to discourage people from using cash. Innovation that usually takes years to find its way into Egypt was announced within less than two weeks.
Goals 11 and 12: “Sustainable Cities and Communities” and “Responsible Consumption and Production” complement each other. Transportation is an important factor in making a city sustainable. For the last 35 days, work and most events worldwide have been held online, cutting down enormously on CO2 emissions. This proves that the world can still be productive when less mobile. The current situation is also an opportunity for many people to reconsider their consumption.
The Environment! Goal 13: “Climate Action.” The planet had not been celebrating a spring with such clean air and lungs in a long time. In China, emissions fell by 25 percent because of the suspension of economic activities. Coal use fell by 40 percent at the six largest power plants since the last quarter of 2019. Thousands of miles away, in India, air pollution was so low, people were able to see the Himalayas for the first time in decades. In Egyptian cities, you could smell the scent of spring flowers at night instead of the usual exhaust fumes. Only three times before had such significant decrease in carbon emissions occurred: during the economic crash in 1929, World War II in 1942, and the economic crisis in 2008. The pandemic is thus an historic wakeup call for economic systems in crisis that must finally stop polluting!
A Moment to Reflect
With Goal 16: “Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions” in mind, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has called for two weeks of global ceasefire in areas of conflict. “It is time to put armed conflict on lockdown and focus together on the true fight of our lives,” he said. Some fighters in Afghanistan, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Colombia, Libya, Myanmar, the Philippines, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine, and Yemen have heeded his call. A new win for the global pause caused by Corona, which may push fighting parties to reconsider resuming their fight, when they could stop it for good.
During the pandemic it became obvious that, driven by Goal 17: “Partnerships for the Goals,” the world needs to pull together to face the pandemic and protect the most vulnerable. Partnerships should not stay at country level but include critical institutions in the areas of health, education, food production, water access, and social justice. All in the same boat, we have no option but to rethink the definition of sustainable development that leaves no one behind.