OPINION: Sustainable development is the ‘policy vaccine’ for worst effects of COVID-19

by Liu Zhenmin | United Nations
Tuesday, 23 June 2020 09:09 GMT

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

With all this havoc, achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is more urgent than ever

As the world’s top scientists work on developing a vaccine to halt the COVID-19 crisis, governments would be wise to accelerate implementation of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – the world’s roadmap to a sustainable future for all. With goals including poverty reduction, clean water and good health, progress towards the SDGs now could serve as a ‘policy vaccine’ that would soften the worst effects of the virus, the full, devastating scale of which we are yet to learn.

Current economic predictions are bleak. Global GDP is expected to contract by as much as 5.2 per cent in 2020. As many as 60 million people could be pushed back into extreme poverty this year – a trend unheard of in more than twenty years.

An additional 10 million children could face acute malnutrition, and the number of people facing acute food insecurity could almost double compared to last year, rising to 265 million. School closures have affected over 90 per cent of the world’s students. All of these setbacks can translate into life-long deficits, perpetuating inequalities across generations.

On the other hand, the virus has given nature some breathing room. Air quality has improved across the world and daily global CO2 emissions are estimated to have fallen by 17 per cent in early April, compared to the average 2019 levels. Current estimates for annual 2020 emissions are four to seven per cent lower than last year. However, without structural change, these trends are guaranteed to be short-lived.

Building immunity to future shocks through SDG progress

With all this havoc, achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is more urgent than ever. Coronavirus response measures such as social distancing and quarantines are necessary, but come with steep human costs – lost livelihoods, forced absence from classrooms, foregone vaccinations against infectious diseases and, for women in particular, a disproportionate increase in the burden of care work and a greater risk of domestic violence.

However, COVID-19 does not affect every person or every country equally. In many cases, the level of progress countries already made towards the SDGs plays an enormous difference.

For example, one of the most reliable ways of fighting the virus – frequent handwashing – is impossible without far-reaching implementation of SDG 6, clean water and sanitation. Furthermore, progress on SDG 11, sustainable cities and communities, is needed to avoid the social distancing challenges that come with living in congested slums. And more severe health outcomes of COVID-19 are associated with pre-existing conditions, such as non-communicable diseases, which are addressed by SDG 3, good health and well-being.

Those with decent job opportunities (SDG 8) and access to the internet and technology to work or learn from home (SDG 9) have fared better in these uncertain times. Clearly, the blows dealt by the virus or the response to it have been softened by SDG progress.

Avoid backsliding on SDG gains

Just as SDG progress offers some protection against COVID-19, backsliding on the gains already made will increase our vulnerability to a second wave of disease or to another massive shock.

We cannot allow this to happen. 

Ensuring universal access to quality health care, education, sanitation, clean energy and the internet must become an integral part of the response. Following the 2008 global financial crisis, guaranteeing a social protection ‘floor’ was widely recognized as essential to build resilience. We now need a similar consensus that guarantees a minimal level of support.

Maintain COVID-19 environmental benefits 

Unlike the sudden onset of this pandemic, the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss have built up more slowly and may be harder to reverse. That’s why we must take advantage of this opportunity to transform the way we approach environmental policies and projects.

We must seize this moment when barriers to climate action are lower than before. With oil prices at historic lows and employment in the sector shrinking, steps such as zeroing out fossil fuel subsidies, introducing progressive carbon taxes and initiating a just transition for workers could place the most ambitious goals of the Paris Agreement within reach. Historically low interest rates, the declining costs of renewables, and the creation of stable jobs through the expansion of essential services and the opening of new sectors of the economy would all support such a transition.

Promote multilateralism

The pandemic shows that the SDGs are a strong preventive medicine against future shocks, and we cannot achieve them without coordinated support from the multilateral system, engagement with the private sector and other stakeholders, and a reinvigoration of global partnerships.

The pandemic has enforced a pause on ‘business-as-usual’, compelling us to face a massive crisis but also encouraging us to envision a realistic way forward towards achieving the goals of the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement.