Editorial - The SDGs Require a New Urgency
Humanity’s Roadmap is Vital for a Better Tomorrow
Why are we talking about the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) now when the world is grappling with the Covid-19 pandemic? Well, precisely for that reason. The Pandemic has resulted in endless miseries for millions of people but its most profound impact has been on mankind’s battle against poverty. We are concerned because it disrupts the “roadmap of humanity” as SDGs are called.
The pandemic has halted the march of SDGs and shattered the status quo. It has also exposed the ugly side of every society across geographies and the brunt of the storm is faced by the weak and the vulnerable. At the receiving end of the health crisis are the same people whose lives were going to be improved by global goals. The SDGs cannot be postponed as they embrace every aspect of human wellbeing and their sustained progress is vital for our shared destinies.
If and when met—even substantially if not fully—the SDGs will bring stability and prosperity for every human being. But the moot question is if things are going to go as planned. What we know for sure is that the pandemic has affected every individual, organisation and government across the world. And the worst hit are the people who live on the margins and work in the informal economy and for whom SDGs matter the most. And that is why the issues central to the SDGs and the health crisis are entangled. Seen from this perspective, the pandemic is a human development crisis.
The gravity of the situation could be gauged by the fact that global human development could decline this year for the first time since the 1990s when the very idea of a Human Development was introduced, UNDP has warned. What is even more worrying is that the trend of a decline in core areas of human development applies to both rich and poor countries across regions. Hence the urgency to achieve the SDG targets with a renewed vigour.
It is worrying that the virus is coming back in the form of new strains. These are already spreading in parts of Europe, particularly in the UK and in areas of Colorado and California in the US. While the scientists are trying to make sense of the resurgent new strains, it is clear that the pandemic is not going to go away just because it is showing a downward trend. This raises the spectre of its ugly aftereffects and lingering economic consequences much beyond the anticipated timelines.
According to a UNDP assessment of the pandemic, based on the findings of more than 70 countries and five reports from different regions of the world, the negative effects of the pandemic are already afflicting the developing countries. The UN’s Framework for the Immediate Socio-Economic Response to the COVID 19 Crisis warns that the pandemic is affecting societies and economies at their core. While the impact varies from country to country, one thing is certain: it will increase poverty and inequalities at a global scale.
The World Bank has already warned of a ‘lost decade’ in terms of the prospects ahead. While the Bank has slashed its forecast for 2021, its half-yearly Global Economic Prospects report is concerned about several new and alarming developments. Some of these are lower global trade and investment, more uncertainties and huge disruptions in education and health that will hamper gains in labour productivity.
“If history is any guide, unless there is substantial reform, we think the global economy is headed for a decade of disappointing growth outcomes,” the report warns. But this is not all. Many other types of adverse impacts, such as on domestic violence, mental health and child abuse are still being calculated.
Hardest Hit: Health, Education, Incomes
It is true that the world was off-track on the goals of education and healthcare for all, even without the pandemic. According to UNDP, over 800 million people are still chronically undernourished in the world. What the pandemic has done is that it has exposed the absurdities in the global food supply chains. “On some dimensions of human development, conditions today are equivalent to levels of deprivation last seen in the mid-1980s,” says a UNDP report titled “Covid-19 and Human Development: Assessing the Crisis, Envisioning the Recovery.” This means that the pandemic may have wiped out the gains of several decades. The report further warns:
“The world has seen many crises over the past 30 years, including the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-09. Each has hit human development hard but, overall, development gains accrued globally year-on-year. COVID-19, with its triple hit to health, education, and income, may change this trend.”
Another important report by Oxfam titled “Dignity Not Destitution: An Economic Rescue Package for All” warns that the crisis could push into poverty nearly half a billion people. The Oxfam report endorses the World Bank’s finding that the impact could setback the global fight against poverty by a decade, but it goes further by stating that in some regions, the time loss could go up to three decades. It strongly recommends an ‘Emergency Rescue Package for All’ in order to allow the poorer countries to bail out small businesses and to provide cash grants to the most vulnerable people who have lost their incomes. It advocates cancellation of debt payments of developing countries for the year 2020 and creation of new international reserves.
Every threat, it is believed, offers an opportunity and the COVID-19 crisis is no exception. It shows us the inadequacies in our approaches to tackling poverty and inequalities. It cautions us that the business as usual will be a recipe for disaster; it will not only push people further into poverty but will also incite violence and unrest. The UN framework for dealing with the crisis recommends ramping up public health and social security, protecting jobs and small businesses, introducing inclusive economic policies, good governance and building peace and social cohesion. Without a global resolve and commitment like SDGs, this framework will be easier said than done.
At a time when the middle-class folks are increasingly working from home and adopting digital technologies for everything from food delivery to mobile banking, the poor are getting left behind even faster because they cannot access smartphones or Wi-Fi connections. The crisis also shows that the emerging technologies like telemedicine or digital classrooms can transform lives provided we doggedly harness technology for the underprivileged. An emerging IT hub like India can herald a fresh beginning by making the Internet accessible and affordable for the vulnerable. Renewing our commitment to the SDGs will be a step in the right direction.
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