Many governments, businesses and local communities have made commitments towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) but COVID-19 may set some of these commitments back.
COVID-19 is raging everywhere, resulting in much of the world in self-isolation and the closing of borders worldwide. With comparisons to the 1918 H1N1 influenza pandemic, we are experiencing a literal one-in-100-year event.
The immediate impact of infectious diseases such as COVID-19 is on the wellbeing of humanity and on global mental and psychosocial health from isolation and stress. However, the knock-on effects of COVID-19 will be more pervasive, affecting the economic prosperity and long-term health of the global community and limiting resources available for sustainable environmental change at a time when we should be focusing on it. Researchers have already made the link between the biodiversity crisis and the emergence of COVID-19.
While the World Health Organisation (WHO) has prepared for such events, governments around the world have been scrambling to respond through a range of interventions. Addressing complex global challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic requires a broader perspective that can not only account for the pandemic risk, but also create resilience against the long-term shocks that will affect the economy, society, and environment.
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have offered us a broader perspective to tackle this global crisis. They aim to “ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all at all ages”, while coping with other aspects such as food safety and security, job security, management of waste and negative environmental impacts.
Many governments, businesses and local communities have made commitments towards achieving the SDGs. However, COVID-19 and its consequences may affect these commitments and damage the achievement of SDG goals at national and local levels.
It is estimated that the pandemic will diminish Australia’s GDP by 2 per cent for each month the lockdowns continue. In addition, at the time of writing, federal government economic stimulus measures totalled 15 per cent of GDP and the economy is forecast to enter recession.
The economic impact will be felt even more severely in rural communities in Australia that have not still recovered from the disastrous bushfires in 2019-20 and are now dealing with an additional hammer blow to their tourism (SDG 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth).
The increased demand caused by panic buying has affected the food supply chain (SDG 2: Food Security) and the availability of medications (SDG 3: Good Health and Wellbeing) across the country.
As a result, vulnerable groups in the community, especially the elderly, have more difficulty in accessing these items (SDG 10: Reduced Inequalities). Households going into lockdown is anticipated to lead to an increase in family violence, made worse by funding cuts to support services (SDG 5: Gender Equality).
Job security has already been impacted as many businesses have been ordered to shut down. Regional tourism businesses, such as hospitality and recreation businesses, are not able to operate (SDG 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth), and this will have drastic impacts on local communities. Stocks of disposable gloves and masks are under pressure, and the waste created through their excessive use could negatively affect the environment and increase carbon emissions (SDG 12: Responsible Consumption and Production).
Frequent hand washing and the high consumption of detergents and disinfectants may contaminate water sources and affect freshwater quality and quantity (SDG 6: Clean Water and Sanitation, SDG 15: Life on Land). School closures due to the COVID-19 outbreak have disrupted the education of students (SDG 4: Quality Education).
For some of the SDGs, COVID-19 may not seem negative in the short-term, for example, there has been a reduction in air pollution due to a decrease in car and airline travel. Some argue that the behaviour change seen as a result of going into lockdown and “hyper-localising” will pave the way for future degrowth necessary to achieve action for climate change (SDG 13: Climate Action).
People can begin to live more sustainable and healthy lives – slower, more embedded and connected with family and place. However, the long-term outcome of the environmental SDGs is not likely to be as positive, as businesses and nations will be facing economic recession and will not have immediate resources for climate mitigation and the environment. Already, reduced oil prices have hit energy company revenue, impeding their willingness to contribute to climate initiatives.
While COVID-19 will negatively impact the ambitions of nations and rural communities for sustainable development, the SDGs can be a helpful framework to counter its devastating effects both now at the time of crisis and in the future. It will allow us to better design coordinated responses to make the best use of the synergies between different goals.
For instance, taking inspiration from Roosevelt’s New Deal as recovery from the Great Depression, implementing community- and nation-building projects to recover from the economic effects of COVID-19, and using the opportunity to implement climate change mitigation measures (a policy focus known today as the Green New Deal).
This type of recovery effort will help Australia rebuild its capacity for the future, and address achievement of multiple socioeconomic SDGs, to tackle poverty and to protect vulnerable parts of the community (Goals 1 and 10), for better job security and continuous economic growth (Goal 8), and for building more resilient infrastructure at the time of crisis (Goal 9).
SDG implementation can also safeguard our cities and communities through risk reduction strategies that enable safe, sustainable, and inclusive access to necessary services in human settlements.
The health and economic cost of COVID-19 may last for years. Green stimulus measures must be considered to mitigate inaction due to lost resources, time and concern. It is evident that like climate change, COVID-19 is affecting the most vulnerable and impeding access to food and medicine.
Social distancing measures and enormous economic stimulus demonstrate that human behaviour and government action can be changed rapidly. It is within the power of our leaders to design recovery measures from this crisis that will allow humanity to emerge as fairer, more just and better prepared for addressing climate change.
Katrina Szetey is a PhD student with the Local SDGs program at Deakin University looking for ways to develop pathways to sustainable futures in Forrest, Victoria. Reihaneh Bandari is a PhD student with the Local SDGs program at Deakin University, focusing on robust decision making techniques for sustainability in the Goulburn Murray region of Victoria. Nick Taylor is the project coordinator of the Local SDGs program at Deakin University. He has particular interest in climate change, sustainability and communication, Enayat A. Moallemi is a research fellow within the Local SDGs program at Deakin University. His research is focused on computational and participatory processes for modelling socio-ecological systems under deep uncertainty.
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