COVID-19 could derail SDGs for next five years – report

COVID-19 will remain uncontrolled in many countries unless coordinated action is taken, warn scientists. SDGs progress was already lagging before the pandemic. Inequities in all sectors must be addressed to avoid worst-case scenario. UN urged to establish Science Advisory Board to inform future health crises.

Medical personnel at Trinity Care Foundation reading a poster about community outreach on Universal Health Coverage Day amidst the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021 in rural Karnataka, India. Scientists have warned that COVID-19 will remain uncontrolled in many countries unless coordinated action is taken. Copyright: Trinity Care Foundation, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


The COVID-19 pandemic will further derail the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the next five years without concerted action, warn international scientists.

The SDGs were adopted by the United Nations in September 2015, and call for governments and organisations to achieve goals such as ending poverty, eradicating hunger and ensuring everyone has access to clean, affordable energy by 2030.

However, the economic fallout on the SDGs from COVID-19 was clear in 2020 when at least 255 million full-time jobs were lost, triggering a hunger crisis, especially in the global South, according to the report Unprecedented and Unfinished: COVID-19 and Implications for National and Global Policy published by the International Science Council (ISC).

“As society, we are not going to respond to COVID-19 if we don’t understand that the pandemic has an impact on every aspect of our lives,” said Mathieu Denis, acting chief executive and science director at ISC, and co-author of the report.

The SDGs were already well off track before the pandemic struck, according to the UN’s 2019 SDG scorecard report, the Global Sustainable Development Report, the last one published.

US$17 trillion

The report singles out lost education as one of the worst consequences of the pandemic, warning that its effects could be felt until the end of the century.

Disruptions to schools and universities caused by COVID-19 lockdowns could lead to a lifetime loss of income for an entire generation costing US$17 trillion, the report warns.

Widespread lockdowns also led to an increase in gender-based violence, while maternal mortality has increased due to overburdening of health facilities, according to the analysis.

It says COVID-19 could remain largely uncontrolled, with “severe recurrences” in some parts of the world, under a worst-case scenario.

Low-income countries will also face growing food insecurity and mental health, according to the analysis, compiled by a panel of 20 experts in fields including public health, virology, economics, behavioural science, ethics, and sociology.

It also highlights the lack of vaccine access in Africa, where only about 16 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated, according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

However, Peter Ofware, Kenya country director for the global health and human rights organisation HealthRight International, says the consequences of COVID-19 for some African countries could be even worse than the report predicts.

“Most economies in Sub-Saharan Africa are in shambles due to COVID-19, it will take these countries decades to recover, if at all,” Ofware told SciDev.Net.

“Already critical sectors like health continue to suffer as resources are diverted elsewhere to try to rebuild the economies of these countries with devastating consequences for health, including maternal and child health.”

He says a resurgence of the pandemic and return to the containment measures, including lockdowns, could irreversibly harm low- and middle-income economies.

“As health stakeholders, we advocate for global vaccine equity and access to affordable antiretrovirals as the [way] forward in containing COVID-19,” he added.

Single body

To avoid the worst impacts of the pandemic over the next five years, the report authors call for coordinated, long-term strategies.

“If we’re going to respond to a pandemic we can’t have a patchwork of differing responses, some good some not so good,” Salim Abdool Karim, ISC vice-chairman and a co-author of the report told SciDev.Net.

“The UN should form a single body of scientists that advises the UN, and that brings together skills from health, labour, agriculture, and education sectors to provide global guidance of what we need to do so we have cohesion.”


Dann Okoth


This article is republished from the SciDev.Net under a Creative Commons license.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Global desk.