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COVID-19 and its impact on SDGs: Some thoughts

When the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were unveiled in 2015, they were lauded as, arguably, the most robust and inclusive set of goals ever designed for global development, and certain to move the needle closer towards a wide-ranging international advancement than ever before.

The SDGs include a drive to end hunger, eradicate poverty, offer quality education, decent work and economic growth, reduce inequalities, and promote good health and well-being for all. The adoption of the 17 SDG goals was a follow up to the Millennium Development Goals (MDG). They were therefore expected to continue from the world stopped with the MDGs.

Following the publication of the SDGs Report 2019 and the SDG Summit 2019,  a flurry of activities followed as countries tracked their progress vis-à-vis the goals. They congratulated themselves, re-calibrated, or panicked, depending on their individual positions.

In fact, the new decade which commenced in 2020 was dubbed the Decade of Action, with calls to turbo-charge the race to the finish line, 2030.

And then, COVID-19 came. And with it, life as we knew it has been changed fundamentally. There have been ricochet effects on virtually every facet of our life. Many people in affected countries are simply struggling to survive, and even for the few countries with relatively low or no direct impact, there is no escaping the hit that the global economy has taken, as a result of COVID-19.

It is still early days to determine how the Covid-19 pandemic will impact the progress on these goals, but the situation is not looking good. As an example, I recently read an online news report of an elderly woman who looked well over forty years old, that was ready to offer her services as a sex worker for N500.

This was not her line of work. However, she said that her children were home with nothing to eat, and the other option open to her – stealing, was not one she wanted to explore. Indeed, there are reports about the rise of rise of criminal activities in some areas of Lagos and Ogun states.

People are hungry, have no food, and are not able to earn any money due to the lockdown. This situation is not unique to Lagos, or even Nigeria. In a number of the worst-hit countries, people are being furloughed and laid off at an alarming rate.

Given this picture, what does it bode for progress on Goal 1 – zero poverty, Goal 2 – zero hunger, and Goal 8 – decent work and economic growth? What of Goal 10 – reduced inequalities, especially in light of findings that COVID-19 is hitting the poorest in society, the hardest?

Let’s also consider Goal 4 – quality education. In Lagos, for instance, despite the well-meaning steps taken by the government to maintain the education of public school students, a lot of them have not been able to keep up with learning at the pace prescribed by their curricula. The COVID-19 pandemic is not likely to blow over in the next couple of months (optimistically speaking), and the overall picture of education stages lost over the course of this crisis is gloomy.

Then we come to Goal 3 – good health and well-being. Given the elephant in the room, there are a lot of other diseases with neglected treatment courses at this time. Understandably, they have been relegated for now. However, the fight against these diseases still remains critical.

For instance, SDG3.3 specifically mentions targets to ‘end the epidemics of AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and neglected tropical diseases and combat hepatitis, water-borne diseases and other communicable diseases’ by 2030.

The World Health Organisation recently announced its recommendation that “mass treatment campaigns for neglected tropical diseases be postponed until further notice”, given the importance of social distancing as one of the three most important measures to control COVID-19.

It is not all gloom and doom, though. There are reported findings of a recent drop in air pollution and increase in air quality, due to reduced industrial activity and travel as a result of the pandemic. Furthermore, significantly, indeed possibly unprecedented (in scale), progress on partnership for development – Goal 17, has been recorded in Nigeria; as public and private organisations have joined forces and made very generous donations towards tackling the pandemic.

There are some rays of light amidst the gloom. However, how sustainable are these given the need to resume industrial activity after the pandemic so as to drive economic regeneration for the former; and given the predicted, nay, evident economic downturn, for the latter?

I am left with three thoughts, as I conclude.

  1. A belief that this pandemic, and key learning from it, will drive us to strengthen our institutions and adopt policies that will make us better prepared for the future, uncertain though it seems.
  2. Delay is not denial. Even if we do not meet the targets by 2030, as long as we keep working towards them, we are winning. There is an adage in the Yoruba language – Agbo ti o fi eyin rin lo, agbara ni o lo mu wa. Translated literally it means, ‘the ram that retreats returns with strength’. Figuratively, it conjures the imagery of one going back to the drawing board after running into a setback, so as to design a better strategy that will ultimately enable him or her achieve their goals, with decisive success.

iii. Between December 2019 and March 2020, the world changed drastically in positive and negative ways. If that level of transformation could happen in four months, in the remaining ten years until the SDGs’ deadline of 2030, a lot can still be achieved. So, we cannot afford to relent, we need to double down and do all that is humanly possible, to keep driving sustainable development and working towards attainment of the goals.


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