The SDGs, COVID-19 and the Global South: Insights from the Sustainable Development Report 2020

Face masks hanging on window bars in Havana, Cuba. Protective face masks are mandatory in public places in most Latin American countries to reduce COVID-19 infections, but part of the population does not use them. Cases and deaths due to COVID-19 are growing rapidly in Latin America and the Caribbean. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS
  • Opinion by Guillaume Lafortune, Finn Woelm, Grayson Fuller, Alyson Marks (paris/new york)
  • Inter Press Service

COVID-19 has claimed more than 550,000 lives and disrupted the entire world, sparing no region. As of July 2020, the number of daily new confirmed cases and deaths due to COVID-19 are growing rapidly in Latin America and the Caribbean, especially in Brazil and Mexico but also in many African countries as well as India. As highlighted in a recent article, these numbers are likely underestimated given the reduced testing capacity in many low and middle-income countries.

The Effective Reproduction Rate (ERR), defined as the average number of infections that an infected individual transmits to susceptible individuals, is above 1 in many African and Latin American countries and in India. An ERR of less than 1 signifies effective suppression, while an ERR above 1 signifies ongoing epidemic conditions. Countries in the Asia-Pacific, such as Taiwan or Vietnam, have largely suppressed the virus, although they must remain vigilant.

COVID-19 has especially affected the achievement of the SDGs, and has produced many negative short-term impacts on most SDGs. For instance, an estimated 71 million people are expected to be pushed back into extreme poverty in 2020. These negative impacts are amplified in low-income countries and vulnerable population groups, especially in the Global South. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted nearly everyone globally, poor and vulnerable populations, including low-skilled workers and refugees, are suffering far more in terms of lost lives, vulnerability to infection, declining incomes, and unemployment.   

Before COVID-19, the world was making progress on the SDGs

One of the major findings of this year's Sustainable Development Report (SDR2020) is that before the COVID-19 outbreak, the world was making progress towards the SDGs. Although no country was on track to achieve the SDGs, the evolution of the SDG Index scores (included in the Sustainable Development Report) between 2010 and 2019 suggests some convergence, with regions and income groups that had lower SDG Index scores in 2010 progressing faster. Due to time lags in data generation and reporting, these results represent the situation before COVID-19. In particular, areas of the Global South, including sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean made significant progress during the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) period (2000–2015) and also showed progress on the SDGs. However, of all United Nations regions, East and South Asia demonstrated the most progress on the SDGs.

The report also highlighted significant disparities in progress across the goals and countries. For example, Côte d'Ivoire, Burkina Faso, and Cambodia improved the most on the SDGs, while Venezuela, Zimbabwe, and the Republic of the Congo regressed the most.

Five key measures for international cooperation

Globalisation facilitates the rapid spread of viruses around the world. At the same time, concerted international action by policymakers, the private sector, civil society, and the scientific community can accelerate the identification of solutions.

The current crisis, including hostilities among major powers, raises the spectre of global conflict instead of global cooperation. It was Charles Kindleberger's thesis in 1929–1939 that the Great Depression was so severe because there was no global leader (or "hegemon") and no adequate cooperation among the major powers. The result, he argued, was a breakdown of the global monetary and trading system that paved the way to Nazi Germany and World War II.

The SDR2020 proposes five key global cooperation measures to address the health and economic consequences of the COVID-19 crisis:

  1. Disseminate best practices rapidly. The world urgently needs to learn from and to emulate the strategies for fighting COVID-19 adopted in the East Asia and the Pacific regions. The World Health Organisation (WHO) should facilitate rapid dissemination of best practices. This is one of the objectives of the newly created Lancet Commission on COVID-19 chaired by SDSN President and leading economist, Jeffrey Sachs. 
  2. Strengthen financing mechanisms for developing countries. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) was created for global crises like this one. It needs ample firepower, including far greater latitude to extend credits, either under existing facilities or through a new issuance of Special Drawing Rights (SDRs). Private creditors will need to refinance or capitalise on debts falling due.
  3. Address hunger hotspots. We need global support for the lead United Nations agencies, including the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), and the World Food Program (WFP), so that they can best fight impending hunger crises and food insecurity.
  4. Ensure social protection. As part of any comprehensive response to the pandemic, governments should promote new instruments of social protection. This includes the new Global Fund for Social Protection that was proposed to address SDG 1 (No Poverty) even before the pandemic, and is now needed even more so.
  5. Promote new drugs and vaccines. Financing research and development (R&D) for COVID-19 drugs and vaccines is an urgent global public good. Without global cooperation, R&D will be inadequate and duplicative. And when breakthroughs are achieved, they will in turn require global cooperation to ensure mass uptake. The Global FundandGavi, the Vaccine Alliance, are two exemplary institutions that serve as historical precedents for what will be needed for the rapid uptake of new drugs and vaccines and how to lead the effort on the ground.

Timely data is also a critical component of overcoming COVID-19. The SDR2020 underscores the need for more timely and disaggregated data in many parts of the world, especially the Global South, to track and address the health and economic impacts of COVID-19 on different population groups. SDSN in partnership with Esri and National Geographic, recently launched a new platform, SDGs Today, with real-time and timely data for the SDGs. All datasets are updated regularly (at least annually), and they have each been curated and validated by SDSN's Thematic Research Network on Data and Statistics (TReNDS).

As we move forward, the priority of every government must be to continue to contain and suppress the virus. As COVID-19 continues to infect a growing number of people in Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, and South Asia, strengthening public health systems and providing access to personal protective equipment and large-scale testing is essential in the absence of a treatment or vaccine.  Furthermore, international solidarity and partnerships are critical to address and prevent health, economic, and humanitarian crises and to avoid major setbacks on the SDGs in the short and long-term.

Guillaume Lafortune - Guillaume is the SDG Index Manager at the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN). Previously, he served as an economist at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) working on public governance reforms and statistics, and was one of the lead advisors for the production of the 2015 and 2017 flagship statistical report Government at a Glance. 

Finn Woelm - Finn is an SDG Index analyst at the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) where he focuses on statistical analyses, data visualization, and web development. Prior to joining the SDSN, Finn co-founded a startup and worked for a number of organizations, including the International Panel on Social Progress. 

Grayson Fuller - Grayson is an SDG Index Analyst at the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) where he manages the data, coding, and statistical analyses for the SDG Index reports. Grayson received his Masters degree in Economic Development at Sciences Po Paris and holds a Bachelors in Latin American Studies from Harvard University.

Alyson Marks - Alyson is the Communications Manager for TReNDS, SDSN's Thematic Research Network on Data and Statistics, focused on improving data governance for sustainable development. She previously managed the communications for several tourism boards and holds a Masters Degree in International Policy and Management from New York University and a Bachelors in Communications from the University of Michigan - Ann Arbor. 

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