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The undetermined impact of COVID-19 on the UN Sustainable Development Goals

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The COVID-19 pandemic has fractured the normality of society. However, an opportunity that may rise from the ashes of this pandemic is a reset to surpass the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals - writes Kevin Butler, a Brussels based public affairs specialist.

Kevin Butler, a Brussels based public affairs specialist.

Kevin Butler, a Brussels based public affairs specialist.

In 2015, the United Nations set out an interlinked collection of 17 goals as a “blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all.” September 2020 is the fifth anniversary of their adoption. With just under ten years left to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, world leaders at an SDG Summit in 2019 called for a Decade of Action and delivery for sustainable development. They pledged to mobilize financing, enhance national implementation and strengthen institutions to achieve the Goals by the target date of 2030, leaving no one behind. Despite recent progress towards the Goals, the pandemic has shifted this momentum. 

Impact of COVID-19 on the SDGs

The United Nations predicts the COVID-19 pandemic will send an estimated 71 million people into extreme poverty, the first rise in global poverty since 1998. Underemployment and unemployment means some 1.6 billion already vulnerable workers in the informal economy (half the global workforce) may be significantly affected, with their incomes estimated to have fallen by 60 per cent in the first month of the crisis alone.

Women and children are also among those bearing the heaviest brunt of the pandemic’s effects. Decreased health and vaccination services along with limited access to diet and nutrition services have the potential to cause hundreds of thousands of additional under-five deaths and tens of thousands of additional maternal deaths across the world in 2020. Many countries have also seen a surge in reports of domestic violence against women and children.

School closures have kept 90% of students worldwide (1.57 billion) out of school and caused over 370 million children to miss out on school meals they depend on. Lack of access to computers and the internet at home means remote learning is out of reach for many people. As more families fall into extreme poverty, children in poor and disadvantaged communities are at much greater risk of child labour, child marriage and child trafficking. Research shows that the global gains in reducing child labour are likely to be reversed for the first time in 20 years.

An opportunity to reset

No matter how powerful the impact of COVID-19 is, we have an opportunity to hit the reset button. Once we are able to rebuild, we must ensure the success of our economy will also reflect societal well-being within each country. We have a unique window of opportunity to shape the recovery. New foundations must be built for our economic and social systems – one that ensures equality for all. Undoubtedly, the level of ambition and cooperation are key metrics in delivering these political objectives. However, we have seen in the past couple of months that radical change can happen overnight.

Organisations and governments have adapted during the crisis, working from home, engaging in virtual conferences and a wide list of the traditional norms for society have simply ceased to exist. Additionally, populations have also adapted in order to stop the spread of the virus.

Notable figures have called for wide ranging changes to the normal that we were once used to fro many years. A few weeks ago, UN Messenger of Peace Malala Yousafzai pleaded to world leaders that “things should not return to the way they were”, insisting on action rather than words. Achim Steiner, former executive director at UNEP recently stated that “the pandemic is a clear warning. Recovery from the crisis cannot be driven by a zero-sum game of economy versus environment, or health versus economy” He called this a “once in a generation chance to set things straight”.

The influence of the SDGs on Europe

The triple effect of the pandemic as seen above, will, in the short term, work against the goals of the UN SDGs. However, it is clear now that the SDGs are resilience indicators for the future.

The Von der Leyen Commission is geared towards a Green and Digital Union since the beginning of her term. The leading figure under the Commission President is Frans Timmermans, Executive Vice President for the EU Green Deal which is one of the six core pillars of the Von der Leyen Commission. In recent months, the European Commission has been building back towards a Green and Digital recovery. A key part of this recovery is the implementation of the principle known as ‘repair and prepare for the next generation.’

Despite the positive communications and policies over the past number of months, more action is needed. Certain countries are building wellbeing indicators into their budgets. The Finnish Presidency in 2019 pushed for more action at an EU level through their Economy of Wellbeing Council conclusions and the Italian government run simulations on budget policies to see if a number of societal indicators would be improved.

Last chance for change

Actions speak louder than words. The pandemic has created enormous short term difficulties for our society. Despite the challenges, we must rebuild. The inequalities of the pre-pandemic world cannot be repeated. Over the past number of months in particular, we have seen how wide the gap is between rich and poor. The European Commission has acted in response to the pandemic but a stronger Europe in the world is needed to successfully realize the UN SDGs.

Civil society leaders and organizations have called for a “super year of activism” to accelerate progress on SDG’s, urging world leaders to increase efforts to reach everyone by supporting local action and innovation and unlocking more financing for sustainable development. Without change, the activism of Fridays for Future and other local level action will increase and intensify throughout the world. This action has the ability to change the current political system with a Green Wave 2.0.

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EU has not yet ordered more AstraZeneca vaccines, says internal market commissioner

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Syringes are prepared to administer the AstraZeneca coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine at a new mass vaccination centre in WiZink sports arena in Madrid, Spain, April 9, 2021. REUTERS/Sergio Perez

The European Union has not yet made any new orders for AstraZeneca (AZN.L) vaccines beyond June when their contract ends, European Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton (pictured) said on Sunday (9 May).

Breton also said he expected that the costs of the EU’s recent order for more doses of Pfizer-BioNTech (PFE.N) vaccines would be higher than the earlier versions.

The Commission last month launched legal action against AstraZeneca for not respecting its contract for the supply of COVID-19 vaccines and for not having a “reliable” plan to ensure timely deliveries.

"We did not renew the order after June. We’ll see what happens," said Breton, adding that it was "a very good vaccine".

Concerns has risen on potential side-effects of the Anglo-Swedish COVID-19 vaccine.

Europe's medicines regulator said on Friday it is reviewing reports of a rare nerve-degenerating disorder in people who received the shots, a move that comes after it found the vaccine may have caused very rare blood clotting cases. Read more.

Breton said an increase in prices for second generation vaccines could be justified by the extra research required and potential changes to industrial equipment.

The European Union signed a new contract with Pfizer-Biontech to receive 1.8 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines for 2021-2023, to cover booster shots, donations and reselling of doses, the European Commission said on Friday (7 May). Read more.

“There may be a little extra cost but I will let the competent authorities unveil it in due course,” he told France Inter radio.

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Hoping to lure back tourists, Greece reopens beaches after lockdown

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With widely spaced sun loungers and regular disinfections, Greece reopened its organised beaches on Saturday as the popular Mediterranean holiday destination eases COVID-19 curbs in preparation for the return of foreign visitors this week.

Tourism accounts for about a fifth of Greece's economy and jobs, and - after the worst year on record for the industry last year - the country can ill afford another lost summer. Read more

"We're pinning our hopes on tourism," said Nikos Venieris, who manages a sandy beach in the seafront suburb of Alimos, just outside the capital, Athens, where social distancing measures will remain in place.

"We're one of the places along the Athens riviera ... that receives many tourists so the number of visitors from abroad will play a big role in our finances," he added.

Under current measures, beach managers like Venieris will have to place umbrellas at least four metres (13 feet), carry out regular disinfections and test beach bar employees and other staff for COVID-19.

People enjoy the sun during the official reopening of beaches to the public, following the easing of measures against the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Athens, Greece, May 8, 2021. REUTERS/Costas Baltas
People enjoy the sea during the official reopening of beaches to the public, following the easing of measures against the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Athens, Greece, May 8, 2021. REUTERS/Costas Baltas

Greece fared well in keeping the first wave of the pandemic under control last year but a resurgence in cases pushed health services to the limit and prompted authorities to impose a second lockdown in November.

As infections have fallen and vaccinations gathered pace, authorities have steadily eased restrictions, opening bars and restaurants earlier this week.

On Friday, they announced that museums would reopen next week before the lifting of travel restrictions on vaccinated foreign visitors on May 15.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has said a combination of widespread testing, immunisation, and the fact that many activities would take place outdoors gave authorities confidence that tourists would be able to visit safely.

For Greek beach lovers, Saturday's reopening of the country's largest beaches was a chance to let off steam after months of lockdown.

"We've been longing for this for six months now, because we're winter swimmers and we've really missed it," said Spiros Linardos, a pensioner, reclining on a sun lounger at Alimos.

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EU calls on US and others to export their vaccines

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European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks during the opening ceremony of an EU summit at the Alfandega do Porto Congress Center in Porto, Portugal May 7, 2021. Luis Vieira/Pool via REUTERS

The European Commission called on Friday (7 May) on the United States and other major COVID-19 vaccine producers to export what they make as the European Union does, rather than talk about waiving intellectual property rights to the shots.

Commission head Ursula von der Leyen told a news conference on the sidelines of a summit of EU leaders that discussions on the waiver would not produce a single dose of COVID-19 vaccine in the short- to medium-term.

"We should be open to lead this discussion. But when we lead this discussion, there needs to be a 360 degree view on it because we need vaccines now for the whole world," she said.

"The European Union is the only continental or democratic region of this world that is exporting at large scale," von der Leyen said.

She said about 50% of European-produced coronavirus vaccine is exported to almost 90 countries, including those in the World Health Organization-backed COVAX program.

"And we invite all those who engage in the debate of a waiver for IP rights also to join us to commit to be willing to export a large share of what is being produced in that region," she said.

Only higher production, removing exports barriers and the sharing of already-ordered vaccines could immediately help fight the pandemic quickly, she said.

"So what is necessary in the short term and the medium term: First of all vaccine sharing. Secondly export of vaccines that are being produced. And the third is investment in the increasing of the capacity to manufacture vaccines."

Von der Leyen said the European Union had started its vaccine sharing mechanism, citing delivery of 615,000 doses to the Western Balkans as an example.

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