UN SDGs & Global Recovery from COVID-19

UN SDGs & Global Recovery from COVID-19

Doha, June 2020


UN SDGs & Global Recovery from COVID-19


Long before the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development by world leaders in 2015, sustainable development has been recognised as one of the biggest challenges facing mankind. We live in a world where more than 800 million people still live in extreme poverty; one out of nine people are starving; 2.5 billion do not have access to clean water; and 1.3 billion people have no access to modern electricity. 


The outbreak of COVID-19 only amplified and brought into sharper focus, the enormous challenge that has been around for a while, as highlighted by the following statistics, before the pandemic:

  • About one in five people in developing regions live on less than $1.25 per day.
  • More than six million children still die before their fifth birthday each year, with 80% of these deaths occurring in sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia.
  • Only half of women in developing regions have access to good health care, and globally there is a 20% chance of any person dying from one of four non communicable diseases (cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, or chronic respiratory disease), between the ages of 30 and 70 years.
  • About 60 million children in developing countries still have no access to good quality education.
  • More than 70% of schools in sub-Saharan Africa have no electricity, and less than half have access to basic drinking water.
  • Three billion people rely on wood, coal, charcoal or animal waste for cooking and heating.
  • It is estimated that about 470 million jobs are needed globally for new entrants to the labour market between 2016 and 2030.
  • At the current consumption pattern and predicted global population of 9.6 billion by 2050, the equivalent of almost three planets would be required to provide the natural resources needed to uphold current lifestyles.
  • About 2.6 billion people depend directly on agriculture, but 52% of the land used for agriculture is moderately or severely affected by soil degradation.
  • Due to drought and desertification, 12 million hectares are lost each year (23 hectares per minute), enough to grow 20 million tons of grain.


In recognition of the dauting task the world was facing, the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were carefully crafted and enshrined in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The SDGs stress the need to end poverty, reduce inequality, improve health and education, spur economic growth, tackle climate change and preserve the world’s oceans and forests. The last SDG (Goal 17) talks of the importance of global partnership in the realisation of the remaining 16 goals. The unfortunate outbreak of COVID-19 has further exasperated the global efforts to address sustainable development challenges. However, a silver lining of the pandemic lies in the possibility that the world could emerge with a ‘new normal’ lifestyle that enhances the global approach to sustainable development.


The strong connectivity between the 17 UN SDGs is revealed


The interconnectivity between the SDGs has never been contested, but often governments all over the world approach the implementation of the goals in fragmented ways. The current outbreak has brought the nexus between the SDGs into sharper focus. The primary and direct target of COVID-19 was human health, thereby relating closely to UN SDG Goal 3 - Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages. However, the impact of the pandemic quickly permeated every aspects of human society addressed in each and every one of the SDGs.


The inadequacies of health systems, even in the most advanced nations, were exposed. The devastating impacts of poverty were laid bare. The lack of access to basic services, such as access to energy, clean water, and sanitation, quickly posed great impediments in the global efforts to control the spread of the virus and manage the disease. Gaps in the manufacturing sector and supply chains were exposed by the shortages of needed personal protective equipment (PPE), ventilators, and sanitizers. Closure of airports, businesses, schools, and non-essential services showed the fragility of daily activities to any widespread threat to human life.


There is no single goal among the SDGs that the pandemic has not impacted. From the perspectives of SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth) and SDG 9 (industry, innovation and infrastructure), the impacts were immediately devastating, as the human capital that is critical for promoting these goals was severely hampered. 


Similarly, shortages of labour and transport interruptions brought about by lockdown measures, severely disrupted the supply chain, with consequential negative impacts on many sectors relating to several SDGs. SDG 4 (inclusive and equitable quality education) took a direct hit, resulting in widespread closure of schools and places of learning.


The pandemic has revealed the fragility of human life, our public health systems, supply chains, economies, international institutions, and alliances. It has shown that sustained economic growth requires healthy (and educated) workforce and customers; and needs all corners of economies and supply chains to be efficient and resilient.


Could COVID-19 be beneficial to Sustainable Development in years to come?


In a sense, it is sad that this pandemic hit at a time when the SDGs were gaining traction and a significant number of countries were making good progress. However, as the coronavirus has highlighted that enhancing better air quality, water and sanitation, and good waste management, will reduce the vulnerability of communities to pandemics, and thus improve overall societal well-being and resilience, world leaders now fully appreciate that the SDGs should remain the cornerstone of global governance. The pandemic has exposed fundamental weaknesses in the global system. It has shown how the prevalence of poverty, weak health systems, lack of education, and a lack of global cooperation can exacerbate a global crisis.  


The pandemic has unequivocally asserted that the world faces common challenges and re-enforced the interdependence of the world system. It has brought to the fore the urgent need for global action to meet people’s basic needs, to save our planet and to build a fairer and resilient world.


As countries rightly reset their priorities and reallocate resources to deal with the pandemic, with the primary objective to save lives, governments must ensure that resources are not shifted away from crucial SDG actions. The response to the pandemic cannot be de-linked from the SDGs. Indeed, achieving the SDGs will put world on a firm path to dealing with global health risks and emerging infectious diseases. It is undeniable that the pandemic has taught the world some valuable lessons:

  • As global citizens, there is utmost value in being each other’s keeper, in leaving no one behind, and in prioritising the needs of the most vulnerable.
  • There are benefits associated with gradually moving large part of the service sector to the digital world and thereby creating virtual workspaces.
  • The world is gradually moving towards a future that would be heavily reliant on digital connectivity, characterised by remote working, less travel, and more virtual meetings.
  • There is need for a rethink of the best approach to multilateralism and international cooperation.
  • Changes to how millions around the globe are educated, could bring new solutions for education, with much needed innovation, that could narrow the inequality gaps.
  • Innovative solutions found for the scaling up of the production of personal protective equipment and ventilators, could become the hallmark of future manufacturing. 


Lockdown measures have been tough on society, businesses, and the economy. It is therefore natural that the entire world has been in panic mode since the advent of the pandemic. However, there are reasons to remain optimistic, based on the resilience and commitment of humans to never give up.




In the global response to the pandemic and to ensure strong resiliency for a revamp global economy, there is need to focus on addressing underlying factors through the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Notwithstanding the fact the pandemic has eroded some of the recent SDG gains, the global energy to continue with the implementation of the SDGs must not be deflated. 


There are hopeful signs from the measures adopted during this outbreak, to show that it is possible to accelerate and deepen global efforts to ‘recover better’, and build a healthier, safer, fairer and a more prosperous world.