OPINION: Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the SDGs will help us build back better

Thursday, 16 April 2020 09:45 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

While we must scale up the immediate health response to curb the spread of COVID-19, the response to the pandemic cannot be de-linked from the SDGs

Erna Solberg is the Prime Minister of Norway and Co-chair of the UN Secretary-General’s SDG Advocates

Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo is the President of the Republic of Ghana and Co-chair of the UN Secretary-General’s SDG Advocates

Our world today is dealing with a crisis of monumental proportions. The novel coronavirus is wreaking havoc across the globe, upending lives and livelihoods. The cost of the pandemic in terms of loss of human lives is painful, but the effects on the global economy and on sustainable development prospects are also worrying. 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, preliminary estimates place it at US$2 trillion.

The pandemic has exposed fundamental weaknesses in our global system. It has shown how the prevalence of poverty, weak health systems, lack of education, and a lack of global cooperation exacerbate the crisis.

If there was any doubt that our world faces common challenges, this pandemic should categorically put that to rest. The 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 resilient world. We face common, global challenges that we must solve through common, global solutions. After all, in a crisis like this we are only as strong as the weakest link. This is what the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the global blueprint to end poverty, protect our planet and ensure prosperity, are all about.

Sadly, this pandemic hit at a time when the SDGs were gaining traction and a significant number of countries were making good progress. As the world is seized with containing the spread of the virus and addressing its negative 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 to scale up the immediate health response to suppress the transmission of the virus, end the pandemic and focus on people particularly, women, youth, low-wage workers, small and medium enterprises, the informal sector and vulnerable groups already at risk. Working together we can save lives, restore livelihoods and bring the global economy back on track.

But what we cannot afford to do, even in these crucial times, is shift resources away from crucial SDG actions. The response to the pandemic cannot be de-linked from the SDGs. Indeed, achieving the SDGs will put us on a firm path to dealing with global health risks and emerging infectious diseases. Achieving SDG 3 (Good Health) will mean strengthening the capacity of countries for early warning, risk reduction and management of national and global health risks.

This pandemic has exposed the crisis in global health systems. And while it is severely undermining prospects for achieving SDG 3 by 2030, it is also having far-reaching effects on all other SDGs.

Emerging evidence of the broader impact of the crisis on our quest to achieve the SDGs is troubling. UNESCO estimates that some 1.25 billion students are affected, posing a serious challenge to the attainment of SDGs Goal 4 (Quality Education); and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates some 25 million people could lose their jobs, with those in informal employment suffering most from lack of social protection. Unfortunately, these are just the tip of the iceberg.

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

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

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 resources needed to achieve 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, and climate change, we will find success in this Decade of Action on the SDGs.

As the world responds to this pandemic and seeks to restore global prosperity, we must focus on addressing underlying factors through the Sustainable Development Goals. We must not relent our efforts, even amid this crisis. While some SDG gains have been eroded, this should not deflate our energy. 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.