COVID-19 is much more than a health crisis. Whilst it is putting untold stress on global health systems, it also has the potential to create social, economic and political crises. At a time of unprecedented uncertainty, where does sustainable development fit? It is possible that the effects of the coronavirus will cause progress on some of the SDGs to erode, whilst others will receive an unexpected surge in progress.

The coronavirus is the defining global crisis of our time. Since its emergence late last year, the virus has spread to every continent except Antarctica, with cases rising daily. At the time of writing, there were approaching 2 million cases worldwide and over 120,000 deaths as a result of COVID-19.

The pandemic is an unprecedented international emergency that has affected the daily lives of billions of people. While millions in the developed world are forced to work and study from home in isolation away from friends and family, many millions more in the less developed world are facing worsening living conditions and a significant death toll as the result of ill-equipped healthcare systems, widening the gap between the rich and the poor. As the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) explains, “The pandemic is moving like a wave—one that may yet crash on those least able to cope.”

COVID-19 is much more than a health crisis. Although it is putting untold stress on the healthcare infrastructure, it also has the potential to create devastating social, economic and political crises that could take years to heal. For instance, the UN’s trade and development agency, UNCTAD, estimate that aside from the tragic human consequences of the coronavirus, the economic uncertainty it has sparked will likely cost the global economy $1 trillion in 2020.

In these desperate times, therefore – what happens to the sustainable development agenda? Will the coronavirus adversely affect all the work that has been done to achieve the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals? Research so far expects its impacts to be mixed.

For example, people all over the world are losing their jobs, businesses and livelihoods as a result of the lockdowns that are in place. The International Labour Organization estimates that 25 million jobs could be lost as a result of the coronavirus and yet as there is no time limit on this crisis, that figure could rise exponentially.

For instance, small island nations that are heavily dependent on tourism, have empty hotels and the communities they support have no means of supplementing the lost income, while factory workers across Asia have been sent home, unable to earn wages and therefore unable to feed their families.

In Europe, families that rely on schools to provide the only hot meal of the day, or safeguarding systems, are now left without, and in the USA, those deprived of health insurance face no way of getting the medical care they need to survive the virus.

As a result of these scenarios - echoed all over the world - more people will be put into poverty and more will go hungry. With more than 700 million living in extreme poverty and 821 million people undernourished before the virus took hold, the SDGs designed to reduce these figures (Goal 1 – No Poverty and Goal 2 – Zero Hunger) will be further behind their targets as numbers climb.

It is also likely that Goal 4 - Quality Education, and Goal 5 - Gender Equality, will also suffer. As schools close and the onus on education is shifted from teachers to parents, many children will be left behind in their studies as parents focus on securing financial stability instead of teaching. In addition, there are many parents around the world that are illiterate and unable to teach their children, relying on schooling systems to help their child progress. As a result of falling education provisions, this situation also stands to worsen equality issues – partly due to the intrinsic links between education and a reduction in violence against women. This places more women and girls in danger at a time when they need protection.

There is a glimmer of light, however. Many of the SDGs focus on climate action and promoting sustainable behaviours. For example, Goal 11 - Sustainable Cities and Communities, Goal 12 – Responsible Consumption and Production and Goal 13 – Climate Action, are each already seeing positive results from the global lockdown.

With many countries closing their borders and slowing their manufacturing capabilities, carbon emissions being released into the atmosphere have decreased too. For example, economic analyst Lauri Myllyvirta estimates the pandemic may have reduced global emissions by 200 megatonnes of carbon dioxide to date, as travel grinds to a halt, factories close down and energy demand falls. For instance, research shows that during the first four weeks of the pandemic, coal consumption in China fell by 36%, and oil refining capacity reduced by 34%, a trend that is likely to be mirrored in many manufacturing hubs around the world.

As a result of less pollutants in the atmosphere, the skies and air are clearer, as can be seen from several satellite images, and in some countries, this is allowing views of planets in our solar system not seen for centuries.

Natasha Chassagne of the University of Tasmania explains that: “In many ways, what we’re seeing now is a rapid and unplanned version of economic “degrowth” – the transition some academics and climate activists have demanded for decades.”

Degrowth is the slowing of growth in sectors that damage the environment, such as fossil fuel industries, until the economy operates within Earth’s limits. Under normal circumstances, such a transformation demands a profound shift in behaviour at every level of society, one that so far, no nation has implemented. Yet the global lockdown has created this scenario as a by-product.

For example, the Coronavirus has forced people to forge local connections; shopping locally, working from home and limiting consumption to what they need. When addressing the climate crisis, researchers have identified that fears about personal well-being represent a major barrier to political support for the degrowth movement to date, yet social distancing has achieved what many have been demanding for years, in the space of a few weeks.

Climate activists are now lobbying governments to consider what areas can “decouple” from carbon as economies ‘reopen’, in order to help continue the climate-friendly behaviours communities all over the world have now adopted.

Whilst there is likely to be significant discrepancies between the effect of the coronavirus on each of the SDGs, international organisations such as the UNDP are striving to ensure that the response of individual countries is comprehensive as well as equitable and inclusive, so that no one is left behind. In doing so, they are already exploring how the coronavirus is changing how we live so that it may help countries better manage the crisis because crucially, “a global response now is an investment in our future”.

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