COVID-19 and SDGs: How the pandemic impacts attainment of the SDGs

COVID-19 and SDGs: How the pandemic impacts attainment of the SDGs

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The COVID-19 pandemic is a major hitch in the attainment of the SDGs, but how bad are we hit?

The pandemic impediment to attaining the SDGs

The United Nations 2030 Agenda for sustainable development is perhaps the most ambitious agenda on the planet. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aim to produce a better world for humanity where extreme poverty is a thing of the past and social ills like hunger, illiteracy and inequality exist only in history books.

As advocates for financial inclusion, the SDGs hold special interest for us because financial access is a target in eight of the seventeen goals and acts as an enabler in their actualisation. As Leora Klapper, Lead Economist at the World Bank says, “Achieving the SDGs will be tougher without bringing people into the banking system.”

Indeed, financial inclusion is not an end in itself. The endgame is attaining the SDGs.

Since the replacement of the millennium development goals (MDGs) with the SDGs in 2016, the unified vision for a better world has invigorated governments, businesses and organisations, in their quest to address these 17 goals.

Then COVID-19 happened.

The coronavirus pandemic is now a humanitarian crisis ravaging almost every nation on earth, upending lives, livelihoods, business and economic stability. Not just that, but this pandemic risks stunting decades of progress in the fight against poverty and exacerbating already high levels of inequality.

In this piece, we will explore the potential impact pf the coronavirus pandemic on the SDGs.

Implications for the 2030 Agenda

The magnitude of the pandemic means countries will channel their resources towards suppressing the spread of the virus and managing the fallout on their respective economies. This may derail existing projections/timelines on the attainment of the SDGs, though to what extent remains to be determined.

So far, the impact of the pandemic on the United Nations’ (UN) Agenda is more obvious on some SDGs than others, SDG 3 (Good health and well-being) being the major casualty. Worldwide, over 5 million people have contracted the disease, with more than 350,000 deaths as of May 21, 2020.

While the virus has proven to be a real threat to all age groups, the elderly have been especially hard -hit, on average accounting for over 80 per cent of the infections.

In Nigeria, we have over 6,000 confirmed cases (as at May 21, 2020) with the numbers increasing everyday. As the disease spreads, hospitalisation needs will grow rapidly — so rapidly that it can overwhelm our nation’s healthcare system. This would be catastrophic because while COVID-19 may be getting all the news coverage, Nigeria is plagued by other diseases like malaria, AIDS, Lassa Fever and so on which also require sufficient resources to treat.

The knock-on effects on the pandemic will also impact other SDGs including:

  • SDG 1 (Ending poverty). In 2019, Nigeria was infamously crowned the poverty capital of the world, with 86.9 million people living in extreme poverty. The lockdown measures enacted by the government means daily earners will have a harder time making daily wages. It is possible that even more households will fall below the poverty line.
  • SDG 2 (Ending hunger). Pre-COVID, some parts of Nigeria, particularly the northern states, suffered from severe food insecurity. Sustained border closures, and market, supply chain and trade disruptions will further impact people’s access to food and nutrition. Already, one-third of Nigerian children under five are stunted. The development agency, Action Against Hunger, reports that Northern Nigeria suffers the world’s third highest level of chronic undernutrition among children.
  • SDG 4 (Quality education). Since March 19, 2020, students have been at home due to schools and universities being closed indefinitely in response to the pandemic. School closures have a wide range of adverse impacts on children and young people, including interrupted learning and forgone human interaction, which is essential to social and behavioural development. Before the school closures, about 10.5 million of Nigeria’s children aged 5–14 years were out of school, according to UNICEF. Evidence suggests that sustained disruption of child education could lead to a rise in child labour and child marriage.
  • SDG 8 (Decent work and economic growth). The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates that Nigeria’s economy will shrink by 3.4 percent this year, with the country facing a recession that could last until 2021. Faced with the twin shocks of the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated decline in international oil prices, tough times lie ahead for Nigeria’s citizens. Naturally, businesses will attempt to cut down their operating costs via downsizing which would raise the rate of unemployment.

Based on the inter-relatedness of the SDGs, we can anticipate negative impacts on the other SDGs as well.

Ironically, had the world made significant progress in attaining the Sustainable Development Goals, we would be better prepared to tackle this pandemic — with stronger health systems, fewer people living in extreme poverty, less gender inequality and more resilient societies.

Financial inclusion

It is also concerning that the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted many parts of the financial inclusion ecosystem with many actors suddenly at risk. For example, microfinance institutions and other credit-issuing organizations, are granting moratoriums to their customers whose businesses are also at risk due to the shocks in the economy. Regardless of moratoriums, the loan default rate could potentially still be high due to uncertainty as to how long the pandemic and its aftershocks will last.

In a UN report titled, Shared Responsibility, Global Solidarity: Responding to the Socio-economic Impacts of COVID-19, the UN admits that “the COVID-19 crisis is likely to have a profound and negative effect on sustainable development efforts. A prolonged global economic slowdown will adversely impact the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”. Nevertheless, the UN advises that in the midst of their response to the crisis, countries should keep the sustainable development goals and climate commitments in focus to hold on to past gains.

Tackling the pandemic, staying the course

The pandemic is a double barreled threat to humanity.

There is the direct health risk caused by the coronavirus and then there’s the knock-on effects on millions of people’s lives, their livelihoods and the real economy.

Overcoming the pandemic requires winning the war on both fronts.

It is worth emphasizing that suppressing transmission and caring for those infected to raise their chances of survival is the primary response to end the pandemic. This will require scaling up country capacity for testing, tracing, quarantine and treatment, while keeping first responders safe.

The UN report suggests that developed countries immediately assist those less developed to bolster their health systems and their response capacity to stop transmission. Otherwise we all face the prospect of the disease re-emerging where it was previously suppressed.

As the saying goes, we are only as strong as the weakest link.

The next port of call is tackling the socioeconomic dimension of this crisis. Special focus should be on the most affected and vulnerable including women, children, the elderly, the poor and informal workers.

This would necessitate fiscal and monetary policy interventions to enhance the direct provision of resources to support workers and households, the provision of health and unemployment insurance, scale social welfare schemes, and support businesses to prevent massive job losses. The UN estimates that the required response would amount to at least 10 percent of global GDP (about $8 billion).

While developed countries can manage these interventions on their own, developing countries will require massive assistance. Debt alleviation, including immediate waivers on interest payments for 2020, has already been suggested by experts from international development agencies.

Save the present, build the future

As tragic as the pandemic has been individually, communally and globally, it also presents a rare opportunity.

It presents a platform from which to deal decisively with the gaps, social ills and weak systems that made us all vulnerable to this crisis in the first place.

As the Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, remarked in his closing address at the Virtual Leaders’ Summit of the G-20 on the COVID-19 Pandemic, “Everything we do during and after this crisis must be with a strong focus on building more equal, inclusive and sustainable economies and societies that are more resilient in the face of pandemics, climate change, and the many other global challenges we face. The recovery from the COVID-19 crisis must lead to a different economy.

Our future depends on it.

Professor Olayinka David-West and Ibukun Taiwo are members of the Sustainable and Inclusive Digital Financial Services initiative of the Lagos Business School

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