Health and Healthcare Systems

COVID-19 is threatening the SDGs – here’s what needs to happen

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COVID-19 has plunged millions back into poverty. Image: REUTERS/Eliana Aponte

Sean Fleming
Senior Writer, Formative Content
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SDG 01: No Poverty

  • COVID-19 has been a major setback to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
  • Between 119-124 million people were pushed back into poverty and chronic hunger by the pandemic, according to a UN report.
  • Reigniting the global goals demands a concerted public-private commitment.

The global death toll from COVID-19 passed the tragic milestone of 4 million in July 2021.

The pandemic has also derailed progress on the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – much of which was already behind target and is now even further delayed.

In its recently published Sustainable Development Goals Report 2021, the UN highlights the extent to which the pandemic has impacted efforts to reduce poverty, end hunger, improve quality and better look after our world.

“The pandemic has halted, or reversed, years, or even decades of development progress,” said UN Under-Secretary-General Liu Zhenmin.

Have you read?

One of the most telling data points revealed in the report is that extreme poverty rose for the first time since 1998. Between 119-124 million people were pushed back into poverty and chronic hunger by the pandemic, the report states.

a chart showing various statistics on the rise of global poverty
The first rise in extreme poverty in a generation has been caused by the pandemic. Image: Sustainable Development Goals Report 2021

Goal 1 is to ‘end poverty in all its forms everywhere’ by 2030. But the UN’s latest data indicates the global poverty rate will be 7% by the end of the current decade.

Widespread setbacks

Across almost every measure, the pandemic has had a negative impact, the UN says.

The equivalent of 255 million full-time jobs were lost (Goal 8: Decent work and economic growth). Greenhouse gas emissions continued to increase (Goal 13: Climate Action). Violence against women and girls has risen (Goal 5: Gender Equality). The global flow of foreign direct investment fell by 40% in 2020 (Goal 17: Partnerships for the Goals).


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Inequalities between rich and poor nations have also been revealed – while around 68 vaccine shots were administered for every 100 people in Europe and Northern America, as of 17 June the equivalent figure for sub-Saharan Africa is less than two.

“This report paints a worrying picture regarding the state of the SDGs,” said Under-Secretary-General Liu. “Yet, it also highlights stories of resilience, adaptability and innovation during the crisis, which indicate a brighter future is possible.”

“The poorest and most vulnerable continue to be at greater risk of becoming infected by the virus and have borne the brunt of the economic fallout”, he continued, adding that the next 18 months will be critical.


Time to refocus global efforts

To stand any chance of getting progress toward the SDGs back on track, the public and private sectors must come together to create jobs, improve gender equality and put an end to global inequality. The report calls for the adoption of “low-carbon, resilient and inclusive development pathways that will reduce carbon emissions (and) conserve natural resources,” as part of a plan to turn things around.

“The global community, first and foremost, needs to ensure equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines and treatments,” Liu said.

“We are at a critical juncture in human history. The decisions and actions we take today will have momentous consequences for future generations. Lessons learned from the pandemic will help us rise to current and future challenges.”

Reasons for hope

Writing in the foreword of the report, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said: “The challenges are immense, but there are also reasons for hope.”

Throughout the many hardships thrown up by the pandemic, there have been signs of resilience and those should be regarded as something to be optimistic about, Guterres believes.

“The COVID-19 crisis demonstrated inspiring community resilience, highlighted the Herculean work by essential workers in myriad fields and facilitated the rapid expansion of social protection, the acceleration of digital transformation and unprecedented worldwide collaboration on the development of vaccines,” he said.

“A brighter future is possible. We must use the crisis to transform our world, deliver on the 2030 Agenda and keep our promise to current and future generations.”

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