Next 18 months are crucial for reversing setbacks in development goals due to pandemic

During the one and half year of the pandemic, many of the gains of years or even decades have been halted or rolled back and the challenges have been magnified many times over

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Representative image
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Dr Gyan Pathak

The picture of unprecedented setback to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) during the last one and half years of COVID-19 pandemic is indeed worrying. Yet a brighter future is still possible, for which the next 18 months are crucial, during which SDG action could be improved. The new flagship UN Sustainable Development Goals Report (SDGR) 2021 has indicated this possibility and said that countries must take ‘critical’ steps during this time of pandemic.

The world was not on track to meet the goals even before the outbreak of the pandemic, but during the one and half year of the pandemic, many of the gains of years or even decades have been halted or rolled back and the challenges have been magnified many times over. About four millions lost their lives and 119-124 million have been pushed back into poverty and chronic hunger with 255 million full time job loss. Global extreme poverty rose for the first time since 1998.

The report has projected a global poverty rate of 7 per cent in 2030, which means we are missing the target of eradicating poverty. Governments worldwide have put in place 1,600 short-term social protection measures in response to COVID-19, but 4 billion people are still not covered by social protection.

The pandemic is exacerbating world hunger. An additional 83-132 million people are likely to have experienced hunger as a result of the pandemic in 2020. The number of undernourished people in the world has increased to 771-820 million in 2020 as against 688 in 2019. The crisis has worsened the plight of more than one billion slum dwellers.

Disruption in health services have threatened years of progress, especially in maternal and child health, immunization coverage, and reduction in both communicable and non-communicable diseases. Around 90 per cent of the countries are still reporting one or more significant disruption to essential health services.

COVID-19 has wiped out 20 years of education gains. There is a risk of a generational catastrophe regarding schooling, where an additional 101 million i.e. 9 per cent children in grades 1-8 have fallen below the minimum reading proficiency level, potentially wiping out two decades of education gains. The pandemic is also intensifying children’s risk of exploitation including trafficking and child labour. In 2020, child labour rose to 160 million, the first increase in two decades.

The pandemic has exposed and intensified inequalities within and among countries. The poorest and most vulnerable people have greater risks of becoming infected by the virus, and bear the brunt of the economic fallout. The crisis has threatened the livelihoods of 1.6 billion workers in informal economy. It will lead to an increase in youth not employed, in school, or in training, the category in which women are 31.1 per cent and men 14 per cent.

Vast inequalities exist in vaccine distribution: as of June 17, 2021, around 68 vaccines were administered for every 100 people in Europe and North America compared with fewer than 2 in sub-Saharan Africa.

A total of 129 countries are not on track to provide safely managed drinking water that 26 per cent i.e. 2 billion are lacking access to. About 46 per cent, i.e. 3.6 billion have no access to safely managed sanitation while 29 per cent, i.e. 2.3 billion lack access to basic hygiene.

One third of the world’s population still uses dangerous and inefficient cooking systems, the report said. A total of 759 million people lack access to electricity.

The crisis has adversely affected progress towards gender equality. Women have faced increased domestic violence, child marriage is projected to rise after a decline in recent years, and unpaid and underpaid care work is increasingly and disproportionately falling on the shoulders of women and girls, impacting educational and income opportunity and health. Women suffered disproportionate share of job losses.

The pandemic has also brought immense financial challenges, especially for developing countries – with a significant rise in debt distress and dramatic decrease in foreign direct investment and trade. Global flows of foreign direct investment fell by 40 per cent in 2020 compared to 2019. Manufacturing production has plummeted by 6.8 per cent in 2020. Economic recovery is underway, but for many countries, economic growth is expected to return to pre-pandemic levels only in 2022 or 2023.

Bribery is at least five times more likely in low income countries which is around 37.6 per cent compared to 7.2 per cent in the high income countries.

In 2020, the first year of pandemic, killings of human rights defenders rose by 18 per cent to 331 which were reported from 32 countries.

Notwithstanding the global economic slowdown, concentration of major greenhouse gases continues to increase, and the climate crisis, the biodiversity crisis, and pollution crisis persists. The global average temperature reached about 1.2 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels, dangerously close to 1.5 degree Celsius threshold established in Paris Agreement. The world remains woefully off track in meeting the agreement. Biodiversity is declining, and terrestrial ecosystems are being degraded at alarming rates.


Around the world, 1 million plastic drinking bottles are purchased every minute, and 5 trillion single-use plastic bags are thrown away each year. The world fell short as well on 2020 targets to halt biodiversity loss and a reversal of the 10 million hectares of forest which was lost each year between 2015 and 2020.

About 41 per cent amphibians, 34 per cent conifers, 33 per cent reef-building corals, 26 per cent mammal, and 14 per cent birds are facing extinction, the report said.

Despite all these worries, the report says that resilience, adaptability, and innovation bring us optimism. Though many governments have come with social protection measures, scientists working to develop life-saving vaccines and treatment for COVID, and digital transformation of governments and business has sped up profoundly changing the way in which we interact, learn, and work, some transformational changes are still needed for which SDGs provide the road map.

These include significantly strengthening social protection systems and public services including health systems, education, water, sanitation and other basic services; increasing investment in science, technology, and innovation; creating fiscal space in developing countries; taking a green-economy approach and investing in clean energy and industry; and transitioning to sustainable food systems.

The report says that investing in data and information infrastructure is critical. Even a year into the pandemic, only about 60 countries had data on COVID-19 infection and death rates that could be disaggregated by age and sex and that were publicly accessible. The data is important if we are to build back better from the crisis and accelerated implementation of the SDGs. But building back better requires multilateralism and the full participation of all societies.

(IPA Service)

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