The Financial Express

Fighting pandemic with SDGs in mind

Fighting pandemic with SDGs in mind

The global onslaught of Covid-19 pandemic continues as uncertainty swirls around the global economy. It is still uncertain how long it will take for everything to resettle and normalcy to be restored. Experts say, until there is a medical solution in the form of vaccine, the health issues will remain the priority. However, as the health crisis is rapidly turning into an economic crisis, parallel debate is on: How to 'cure' the world economy that has already been 'infected' by Covid-19 due to the unprecedented restrictions on the movement of people as well as economic activities in the form of worldwide lockdown. Though countries are reopening slowly with caution, the restrictions in varying degrees are expected to be in place for some time more further impacting the economies.  

There is no doubt that the outbreak will have deep and lasting socio-economic impact in every corner of the globe. The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs predicted that the global economy could shrink by almost one percent this year (0.9 percent). A world bank analysis has argued that depending on the scale of the economic shock, Covid-19 is likely to push about 40-60 million people into extreme poverty. In the worst case scenario, global poverty in 2020 could be close to the level of 2017, eliminating last three years' progress in fighting extreme poverty. International Monetary Fund (IMF) noted that even a short-lived outbreak would cause a 3.0 per cent Gross Domestic Product (GDP) contraction globally. Asian Development Bank (ADB) has predicted that the Covid-19 pandemic could cost the global economy as much as $8.8trn in losses, or 9.70 per cent of global GDP. Global employment could fall by between 158 million and 242 million jobs. According to the UN report on World Economic Situation and Prospects as of mid-2020, the global economy is projected to contract sharply by 3.2o per cent this year and only a modest rebound is expected in 2021. The projected cumulative output losses during the next two years would amount to $8.5 trillion, wiping out nearly all output gains of the previous four years. World trade is forecast to drop by nearly 15 percent in 2020 amid sharply reduced global demand and disruptions in global supply chains. All these forecasts indicate that the progress made in the preceding years in addressing poverty, hunger, inequality, good health, and wellbeing would slide back and might face serious setbacks in the coming months and years.

Under the prevailing situation, health has rightly been on the top of the agenda by scaling up the immediate health response. We have, however, seen immediate actions worldwide on the economic front largely being centered on welfare measures to meet the basic needs of the most vulnerable ones, ensuring social safety net, and declaring stimulus packages. Major thrust of the planning has been getting the economy back on track presumably by addressing the issues of growth, poverty and inequality, employment generation, business, and investment etc. While all these seem to be very much rational, the world, however, must not lose sight of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are based on 17 targets. The pandemic is very much poised to impact the SDGs in various degrees in different parts of the world, which in turn will have bigger ramifications on the economy, society, and the environment. So, the world must take a holistic and all-encompassing approach with an eye to the overall achievement of SDGs while reformulating the short-term and mid-term policies during and post Covid-19 period.

The possible impacts of Covid-19 on the SDGs could be threefold: First, it will erase some of the commendable achievements made so far regarding some goals which have been directly affected; Second, it will slow down the progress of some other goals in the coming months due to resetting of priorities; and Third, resources might be reallocated to the immediate priority sectors. All these might cause delay in the achievement of SDGs; some analysts are even foreseeing a re-evaluation of the timeline for achieving SDGs.  

As far as the seventeen goals are concerned, the impact can be of two types: explicit and implicit. The goals which are most likely to be explicitly affected are: GOAL 1: No Poverty; GOAL 2: Zero Hunger; GOAL 3: Good Health and Well-being; GOAL 4: Quality Education; GOAL 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth; GOAL 10: Reduced Inequality. The forecast mentioned in para-2 are clear indications to that. The goals which might suffer implicitly due to divergence in the priorities are: GOAL 5: Gender Equality; GOAL 6: Clean Water and Sanitation; GOAL 7: Affordable and Clean Energy; GOAL 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure; GOAL 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities; GOAL 13: Climate Action; GOAL 14: Life Below Water; GOAL 15: Life on Land; GOAL 16: Peace and Justice Strong Institutions. Restrictions on worldwide economic activities may lead to some relief for the nature, therefore making some improvement relating to SDG no 13, 14 and 15. These, however, may not be enough to compensate substantially for the overall impact. 

PARTNERSHIPS TO ACHIEVE THE GOALS: Covid-19 has shown how a common global challenge can have differential impacts on different countries/regions based on their socio-economic realities. The least developed and developing countries, landlocked developing countries, small island states and sub-Saharan Africa are likely to suffer the most. Of them, the poor and the middle class will be hit hard. The marginal groups, - women, migrants, low-skilled and low-wage informal workers are the worst sufferer. So, Covid-19 has come as a big blow to the core principles of the concept of Sustainable Development: "inclusiveness" and "leaving no one behind".

So, what are our major lessons from this pandemic and how to proceed from here vis-a-vis sustainable development?

First and foremost, take lessons from this crisis and envisage building more just, resilient, and stronger societies to absorb such external shocks and deliver on the promise of the 2030 Agenda (SDGs).

Second: A thorough assessment of how far the pandemic is going to affect the achievement of SDGs in the short, medium, and long run and how best they can be addressed.

Third: "Shared responsibility", "global solidarity" and "acting together" should be the basic principles for responding to the socio-economic challenges posed by Covid-19, rightly identified by the UN in its recent report on Covid-19 impact.

Fourth: Redefining the roles of different stakeholders within the "New Normal": the responsibilities have to be extended from the governments to the international community, multilateral organizations, private sector, civil society and even individuals, if we want to put up an effective and meaningful fight against the pandemic and its effect on sustainable development goals.

Fifth: Covid-19 has showed how small-scale humanitarian and philanthropic approaches at micro-level can have huge impact in fighting the challenges in difficult times, particularly in terms of resource mobilization. We need to translate the same spirit in our approach towards achieving the SDGs in the post-Covid period.

Sixth: In keeping with the core principle of SDGs, we must continue taking special care of the most marginal and vulnerable segment of the society to ensure "no one is left behind".

Let me finish with an anecdote. When I first learned economics during my school days, I remember the introductory chapter where I read that in 'economics' there is no place of 'emotion'. Later, I learned about the underlying principle behind this statement that every person will take a decision which will maximise his personal satisfaction or utility and a decision which is purely "rational" and hence 'devoid of emotion'. This haunted my tender mind for long wondering how decisions can be made by human beings entirely based on "self-interest" and having not been guided by one's 'emotion' and care for others! Then when I opted to study economics at the university, I was somewhat relieved to find out that there was another school of thought formed by the behavioral economists who explains human behaviour through the lens of social preferences and do recognize 'emotion' and other human factors in taking economic decisions. Humans do not only care for their own interests, but also the well-being of others; they can be "selfless", they can be "responsible"!  

Perhaps, during this Covid-19 crisis, the word "responsible" has become more apt and relevant, if not the most, in our common fight against a global common challenge. Covid-19 has come as an eye-opener for us. So, it is high time we fought together in the 'most' 'responsible' manner than ever. As we gradually move forward and adjust with the "New Normal" in the post-Covid period, we must also define the new normal of being 'responsible' to achieve the SDGs within the timeframe. Behavioural change on a global scale would be instrumental to achieve the SDGs. While we maintain distance physically, lets reconnect our minds and act together.  


The writer is a Bangladeshi diplomat by profession and an economist by training. mukarram.manuar@gmail.com.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's own 



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