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How Covid-19 will affect sustainability and the UNSDGs

DailyO logo DailyO 01-04-2020 Nilanjan Ghosh

As the globe reels under the onslaught of Covid-19, the major contentions floating around are about the global economic slump and uncertainties in the global political and economic orders. The pandemic, by itself, and also through various economic, social and political avenues, will affect global developmental objectives at a much broader scale. The impacts will be observed more prominently in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Goals halted

As the tenure of the millennium development goals ended in 2015, all UN member nations adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development that entailed a shared vision of peace and prosperity for the planet. At the core of this global call are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that emphasise the development of human society need not entail the destruction of the natural ecosystem and biodiversity. On the contrary, there is a huge dependence of human society on the ecosystem services provided by biodiversity. Therefore, SDGs stress on ending poverty and deprivations, reduce inequality, improve health and education, and spur economic growth — while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests. The SDG 17 talks of global partnership to realise the remaining 16 goals.

In a sense, SDGs have become the cornerstone of global governance, and governance at all levels, even at the most micro-level of an institutional governance set-up. This brings me back to the idiom I often use: the challenge of governance needs to be construed as the challenge of reconciling between the “irreconcilable trinity” of equity, efficiency, and sustainability – a triad that development economist Mohan Munasinghe delineates as the “discourse of sustainomics”. The 17 SDGs essentially acknowledge this irreconcilable trinity.

The pandemic Covid-19 doesn’t just come in the way of the SDGs, but calls for a rethinking of the timeline. At the very outset, it creates more insulated economies with the closure of borders and international migration. It has created suspicion among nations. Of course, there was a global trend among major economies getting into a shell with multilateralism failing largely across the globe. The pandemic has aggravated the situation. This will definitely come in the way of realising SDG 17 that talks of global partnerships for achieving other SDGs. This will happen despite the WHO’s initiatives. Suspicions have also been cast over WHO’s roles and abilities by certain member nations in this context.

Digital options

From the perspectives of SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth) and SDG 9 (industry, innovation and infrastructure), the impacts in the short-run will be worrisome. More so because one very critical factor to promote SDG8 is human capital and that has taken a massive beating now. The same goes for SDG 9. However, it may be expected that newer forms of institutions will emerge over time to combat this crisis, and the growth drivers will change.

main sdg un © Provided by DailyO main sdg un The challenges to the equity dimension of holistic development that is being posed by the pandemic will severely affect the SDG-3 on good health and well-being for all. (Photo: United Nations)

Already as far as the service sector is concerned, a large part of it has been moving to the digital world thereby creating virtual workspaces replacing the physical workstations. Moreover, the world is already witnessing a heavy reliance on digital connectivity. Hence, there remains the possibility that growth may be spurred from this digital space mostly from services, but this will also witness simultaneous slump and closures of traditional manufacturing. This is the apparent impact.

Challenges ahead

A large part of the services sector in the developing world remains unorganised and does not feature in the digital space – neither it will be easy to place them there as almost all of it requires physical presence. This inability of being accommodated in digital spaces will lead to more poverty, hunger, and inequalities thereby hampering achievements of SDGs 1, 2, and 10. These are the challenges to the equity dimension of holistic development that is being posed by the pandemic severely affecting SDG3 (good health and well-being).

On the other hand, reduced economic activity in the physical space of the planet will be good for the natural environment: SDG13 (climate action), SDG 14 (life below water) and SDG 15 (life on land) may get augmented. The revival of dolphins and pangolins in spaces where land-use change has altered forest lands to urban agglomerations is a case in point. However, sustainable development is not devoid of humans: it talks of the coexistence of biodiversity conservation, and development of the human society by meeting with the various equity needs. Here one of the most crucial goals gets affected: SDG 16, which talks of peace, justice and strong institutions. Large parts of the developing and underdeveloped world view this pandemic as one imported by the privileged class through international travels and free mixing in the occidental ways of life. Their ambitions will get a huge beating for almost no fault of theirs, and a probable demand for reparation (compensation by those responsible) cannot be stated to be “unjustified”! The bigger question is: can the global justice system uphold such demand? Else, all we get is a neo-Malthusian creed where conflict, hatred, insulation and distrust prevail and distributive justice is not served.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

Also read: The political economy of coronavirus

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