Multidimensional Impacts of COVID-19 on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): Challenges, Responses and Recommendations for Pakistan

The ambition of a new universal agenda – attaining sustainable development until 2030 – withered away with the outbreak of COVID-19. The after-effects of the pandemic not only distressed the social, economic and political spaces but also setback the progress achieved by nations to achieve sustainability. Developing nations like Pakistan were the most affected ones in this context because these nations were already facing economic strain and were unable to pull the 17 goals due to their underdeveloped infrastructures. The ongoing pandemic has pushed the world into a recession and exacerbated economic growth, and productivity –all three being the primary drivers of alleviating living standards and reducing poverty. Although Pakistan was the first country to adopt SDGs in its parliament through a unanimous resolution and the incumbent government has embarked on a journey to become a welfare state, however, the outbreak of COVID-19 has created multidimensional challenges for the country to achieve sustainability and further the well-being of its citizens.

Although a number of nations were falling behind the targets set by SDGs 2030 prior to the COVID-19 but the ongoing global health crisis has augmented the gap and created more challenges for the realization of sustainability for the coming decades. To contain the spread of the pandemic and drawdown the causalities, nation-wide lockdowns were imposed, which brought the global economy to a standstill, which will more likely lead to a reduction in funding for SDGs. Similarly, COVID-19 has further complicated the security situations of nations resulting in emerging non-conventional security threats such as, infodemics, socio-economic degradation, and in future, possibly leading to a failure in distinguishing between a natural outbreak of infectious diseases and a premediated biological attack. Considering everything, COVID-19 has affected the SDGs directly and indirectly and created an environment of emergency across the globe, which has brought a distressing social, economic and political crisis that will leave deep scars for years to come.

In the case of Pakistan, the government imposed a complete lockdown on February 26, 2020 due to a rapid increase in COVID-19 cases but after four months, the government of Pakistan decided to impose ‘Smart Lockdown’ to minimize the economic toll which had taken on the daily wage labourers. Although the vaccination process has begun in Pakistan but according to the statistics of February 28, 2021, there are approximately 581,365 confirmed cases in total with an average of 30 new cases per day. The ongoing pandemic incurred huge losses to the national economy, as in the last quarter of FY2019-2020 economy nosedived, inflation plunged and job losses of up to 18.5 million are expected.

The Government of Pakistan designated PKR 1.2 trillion for a recovery plan and budget to be spent through a multi-sectoral relief package to address the challenges arisen due to the outbreak of Covid-19. The economic relief package assisted the vulnerable sector. This included 2billion for daily wage workers, a 150billion for low-income families, 15billion for health and food supplies etc. This relief package implicitly aided in achieving, or at least sustaining, Goal 1 (No Poverty), Goal 2 (Zero Hunger), and Goal 3 (Good Health and Wellbeing). Among other measures to boost the economy, those in line with SDGs included Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund (PPFA) partnerships with 19 organizations, Ehsaas Emergency Cash Program” with a total allocation of Rs 144 billion to provide immediate cash relief of Rs 12,000 to 12 million families of daily wage earners. Ehsaas Emergency Cash Program has completed its original target of distribution of funds to over 12 million beneficiaries, the government has set a new target of 16.9 million beneficiaries and budgetary allocation raised to Rs 203 billion.

Among all the influences of COVID-19 on SDGs, Good health and wellbeing (GOAL 3) was the most obvious casualty across the globe and developing nations like Pakistan were the most vulnerable due to their underdeveloped infrastructure and short supply of human and material resources. Healthcare workers and armed forces faced a shortage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE’s). Amid the scarcity of resources and economic setback, the Government of Pakistan has taken thoughtful measures like smart-lockdown, national command and control centre, seeking assistance from friendly countries, approval of clinical trials of plasma therapy and locally made ventilators for treatment, collaboration for vaccine development, and providing economic relief to society. Moreover, the Government of Pakistan was able to pull up the initiatives of providing health insurance to under-privileged citizens across the country to get access to their entitled medical health care in a swift and dignified manner without any financial obligations during the pandemic. This was a huge leap towards achieving GOAL 3 of SDGs.

THE PANDEMIC COULD PUSH THE NUMBER OF PEOPLE LIVING IN EXTREME POVERTY TO OVER 1 BILLION BY 2030.

The major problem in the achievement of SDGs has now become the funding because all nations incurred huge losses and the global economy contracted up to 5 percent in 2020 due to the lockdowns. The major determinants of SDGs success in 2015, when the goals were marked, were sustained economic growth and globalization; however, both were torn into shred by the ongoing pandemic. When the goals were set, national budgets were flushed with funds but due to the economic slowdown during the pandemic, there will be a drastic reduction in funds allocation for the sustainable development agenda. Developing economies, like Pakistan were already under the financial burden and struggling to repay debts while the economic cost of the pandemic left them more vulnerable. This is the reason that Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan called for financial assistance from the developed nations to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19 and rearranging the debt repayment cycles of developing nations. Moreover, the government of Pakistan has announced bailout packages to revive its economy and provided its underprivileged citizens with financial assistance but to overcome the setback, all developing nations will have to re-prioritize their development preferences and establish an innovative and cost-effective policy mechanism to achieve the SDGs.

Prior to SDGs, MDGs also set a goal to eradicate extreme hunger and poverty, and according to statistics provided by the UNDP, more than a billion people were lifted out of poverty from 1990 to 2010; five years before the timeline. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was of the view that “the global mobilization behind the Millennium Development Goals has produced the most successful anti-poverty movement in history.” Despite this success, half of the world population were still employed in vulnerable conditions and the poverty ratio gap was expected to rise in coming years, which is why SDGs set its GOAL 1 to have no poverty. According to a recent, report of UNDP, “under a ‘COVID Baseline’ scenario, the pandemic could raise the number of people living in extreme poverty by 44 million in 2030, under “high damage scenario” the number of people living in poverty could reach up to 1 billion by 2030.” Therefore, looking at the increase in population by 2030 and currently, 1.3billion people living in multidimensional poverty, pandemic led us to square one again and there is no progress achieved. 

Pakistan’s success in alleviating poverty is evident from stats, as the country had 9 percent poverty in 2011 while in 2020 it reached 1 percent. This shows Pakistan’s commitment and achievement of SDG1. However, the goal is to reach the threshold of earning $3.20 per day while more than 20 percent of the current population lives under this threshold, posing a major challenge to completely achieve SDG1 until 2030. Equally, the incumbent government has taken a number of initiatives like establishing parliamentary task forces, district-level databases and providing financial assistance (Ehsaas Emergency Program) to underprivileged citizens to overcome this poverty ratio gap. Moreover, we have been successful in implementing legislation like the Balochistan Senior Citizens Act of 2017 and The Punjab Charities Act of 2018, which will further the cause. The government has also pledged to align its social protection policies with SDG 1 and ensure better targeting of poverty reduction measures especially focusing on vulnerable groups such as women, children and people with disabilities. While there is much more to do, the multi-dimensional efforts of the incumbent government seem sincere and moving towards the accomplishment of SDG1.

Zero Hunger SDG2 is also among the most affected areas of SDGs due to COVID-19 lockdowns and their impacts on agriculture. According to the UN World Food Programme, more than 265 million people are expected to suffer from food shortages and 821million people are already undernourished. Goal 2 could be achieved by international cooperation but due to pandemic the chances are bleak now and countries are not in a position to divert the funds committed to SDG targets like sustainable agriculture. Moreover, the demands of cash crops have already fallen, and eventually, when the industries will double down their manufacturing, the environmental degradation will congregate, thus affecting food security.

In terms of Education (Goal 4), COVID-19 setback the progress of this goal due to the closure of schools during the pandemic. According to the estimates of UNDP, “the effective out-of-school rate indicate that 60% of children are not getting an education, leading to global levels not seen since the 1980s. The combined impact of these shocks could signify the largest reversal in human development on record. This is not counting other significant effects, for instance, in the progress towards gender equality. The negative impacts on women and girls span economic – earning and saving less and greater job insecurity -, reproductive health, unpaid care work and gender-based violence.” In Pakistan, educational institutes remained closed for almost 10 months and then initiated distance learning but it also faced numerous problems because more than half of the students, mostly from the peripheral regions, do not have access to the internet and computers or gadgets, and the faculty was not trained to teach effectively through online channels. Overall, the target to achieve gender parity in literacy and supply of good teachers through international cooperation for training in developing countries remained zero during the pandemic lockdowns.

This crisis shows that if we fail to bring equity into the policy toolkit, many will fall further behind. This is particularly important for the ‘new necessities’ of the 21st century, such as access to the Internet, which is helping us to benefit from tele-education, telemedicine, and to work from home.”- Pedro Conceição, Director of the Human Development Report Office at UNDP

Expert analysis of SDGs after the ongoing pandemic shows that there are several new areas of concern that should be taken into consideration to achieve sustainability across the globe without conceding erstwhile. According to the UN, “the most explicit impacts of COVID-19 on the SDGs were on the GOAL 1: No Poverty; GOAL 2: Zero Hunger; GOAL 3: Good Health and Well-being; GOAL 4: Quality Education; GOAL 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth; GOAL 10: Reduced Inequality; and GOAL 12: Responsible Consumption and Production. While having an added focus on the health sector due to the ongoing pandemic, other goals may affect it in the longer run. Such as GOAL 5: Gender Equality; GOAL 6: Clean Water and Sanitation; GOAL 7: Affordable and Clean Energy; GOAL 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure; GOAL 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities; GOAL 13: Climate Action; GOAL 14: Life below Water; GOAL 15: Life on Land; GOAL 16: Peace and Justice Strong Institutions.”

The goals like providing decent employments to one-fifth of the youngster across the globe also seem shelved due to the pandemic. More than 81 million people lost their jobs worldwide due to COVID and this ratio is expected to remain high during 2021 as well. This directly affects other SDGs as well like health and wellbeing, zero hunger, gender equality and reduced inequalities etc. According to the Asian Development Bank projections, unemployment in Pakistan could jump from 8.9 percent in 2019 to somewhere between 17.3 and 21.5 percent in a year due to the coronavirus pandemic, and 660 million youth is severely challenged. According to Moody, the recovery related to employment may take four years meaning that it will normalize until 2024, leaving only six years for reaching the goal. The target to increase Aid for Trade support for developing countries also seems to sink because nations are diverting funds for their post-pandemic recovery.

“The world has seen many crises over the past 30 years, including the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-09. Each has hit human development hard but, overall, development gains accrued globally year-on-year. COVID-19, with its triple hit to health, education, and income, may change this trend,” says UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner.

Building on the MDGs, the Agenda 2030 seemed achievable and substantial progress has been made by the nations in the first few years of adoption of SDGs but the pandemic adversely affected the momentum of achievements. A report published during the first year of the pandemic indicated the possible impacts of COVID-19 on the SDGs stated that the effect is three-fold:

  1. It will erase some of the commendable achievements made so far regarding some goals which have been directly affected
  2. It will slow down the progress of some other goals in the coming months due to the resetting of priorities
  3. Resources might be reallocated to the immediate priority sectors

Nevertheless, in the context of COVID-19 and attainment of SDGs, there was an unseen benefit, such as Goal 13 Climate Action, Goal 14 Life below Water, and Goal 15 Life on Land received a relief. The planet rejuvenated and air quality has been ameliorated significantly in the polluted cities, similarly, the flora and fauna revived due to less human interventions. This development was due to the decrease in the mass-movements due to nationwide lockdowns. Another implicit impact of pandemic was seen on Goal 17 ‘Partnerships to achieve the Goals’ because the global world stood united to contain the spread of the virus and then expedited the development of vaccination, showing resilience towards the mutual concerns. It is the case with SDGs; they are of global concern and require global solidarity like one we witnessed during the pandemic

A report titled “COVID-19 Impacts on the Sustainable Development Goals” delineates the fact that few goals are counterproductive and two-third of them are not well placed to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19. It also forecasts that up to ten percent of the 169 SDG targets could even worsen the situation and have bearing on the future of pandemics.

The pandemic brought us to realize that like the COVID-19, sustainable development is also a global problem and requires global solidarity. It led us to question the collective long-term goals of humans, to strive collectively for reversing climate change and ensuring that all individuals must receive a good education and better health facilities. Thus, the lesson pandemic taught us is that there is no Planet-B and therefore as individuals we have to make changes in our life, which collectively will culminate into a global change resulting in the sustainability of our planet and a better life for generations to come.

International organizations recommended few post-pandemic mitigation strategies to achieve the SDGs, like UNDP suggested five priority steps to tackle the crisis, which includes, protecting health systems and services, ramping up social protection, protecting jobs and SMEs, making macroeconomic policies work for everyone, and promoting peace, good governance and trust to build social cohesion. UNDP also called on the international community to rapidly invest in the ability of developing countries to follow these aforementioned steps. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for changing the indicators of economic growth and focusing on the well-being and sustainability in the post-pandemic period.

For Pakistan, a report published by the Economic and Social Consortium for Asia and Pacific (ESCAP) recommended that:

  • The Government of Pakistan should incentivize the sustainable value chains and restructure the tariffs and regulatory measures for SDG push
  • State Bank of Pakistan can introduce credit facilitation for innovative enterprises that use clean technology
  • Research to evaluate the credit gap that exists for micro, small and medium enterprises that focus on sustainable production
  • The government should revisit the targets and reprioritize them according to the domestic needs and their convergence with the national interest such as one decoupling the development and wellbeing with economic growth
  • Redefining the role and responsibilities of stakeholders to mitigate the long-term impacts of COVID-19 on different segments of society and to align the small efforts with the realization of different goals of Agenda 2030
  • Creating a permanent body like NCOC, which should work on research, resource development like providing training and strategizing to combat future challenges like COVID-19
  • Legislations to focus on clean energy, investments in sustainability and green bonds, and harnessing the technology for SDG push
  • Allocating additional resources to biotechnology and invest in research and development and it is because there are predictions that more such pandemics are more likely to occur in the near future
  • Focus on sustainable health decisions, meaning decisions that are made in the present do not compromise future needs. Making such decisions requires adapting to the current context, anticipating future impact, and using a rights-based framework
  • Promote a culture of reuse and recycling, along with penalties for environmentally irresponsible practices
  • Strengthening social accountability through think tanks and other civil society organizations for the sustainability transition

In conclusion, COVID-19 poses austere challenges for the attainment of SDGs, especially in the case of developing nations and struggling economies for Pakistan. It requires $2.5trillion per year is required to achieve the SDGs until 2030 but as the world is plunged into a recession by the pandemic, it makes it even harder to achieve the development targets set by all nations in 2015. This is why, now we have to make a thorough assessment of how COVID-19 setback our progress on SDGs, and for this, we have to revisit the goals, identify the converging areas, integrate the goals with the national and individual healthcare decisions, and formulate a recovery plan to mitigate the impact of COVID on SDGs.

Small efforts can make huge strides and with the same spirit adopted by stakeholders across the globe to contain the pandemic; we can achieve the SDGs as well.

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Amna Malik
About Amna Malik 48 Articles
Author is the President, Center of Pakistan and International Relations (COPAIR) and Editor-in-Chief of ‘Mélange int’l Magazine’ and ‘ The Asian Telegraph’.