Healing people and planet in the wake of COVID-19

The pandemic makes the SDGs even more relevant, even more critical to ensure that we leave no one behind

Pandemic recoveryGlobal

Members of a community in Hoiebia, Papua New Guinea, meet with Amina J. Mohammed, UN Deputy Secretary-General. The community is home to families displaced by disasters and conflict. © UN in Papua New Guinea

COVID-19 has shaken the pillars of our world with all-encompassing disruption: societies, economies, and people are reeling. According to United Nations estimates, the pandemic has pushed 114.4 million people into extreme poverty, and we are forecasting sharp declines in the UN Human Development Index. While rich countries have eased some of the pain by spending more than 10% of gross domestic product on rescue packages and other measures, emerging economies and the poorest countries have lower budgets and little fiscal space, and face liquidity shortfalls that constrain their responses.

The crisis has also highlighted and exacerbated pre-existing inequalities across the world. This is particularly the case for gender equality, where we risk losing a generation of gains. Women have been pushed out of the labor force and into poverty in higher numbers, and are absorbing the burden of skyrocketing care responsibilities alongside the economic and health consequences. All of this has also been accompanied by an alarming increase in male violence against women and girls.

The pandemic has hit the most vulnerable hardest, including:

  • people caught up in conflicts or disasters
  • children and youth
  • persons with disabilities
  • people lacking social protection
  • those in the informal sector

It has caused immense psychological suffering for millions with limited mental health services. And it has exposed the perils of encroachment on wild habitats, which are the primary pathways for emerging infectious diseases. With biodiversity declining and climate change intensifying, the current crisis must also be a wake-up call to transform our relationship with nature.

A new urgency

The upheaval has underscored the urgency of the SDGs. Indeed, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is designed to address the very fragilities and shortcomings that the pandemic has exposed. This means that COVID-19 recovery is an opportunity to invest in the SDGs and to find a path that:

  • promotes public health
  • revitalizes economies
  • safeguards the environment
  • closes the digital divide
  • brings people in from the margins
  • builds long-term resilience, sustainability, opportunity, and peace

But doing so requires bold policy choices. We need to put the SDGs, women’s full inclusion, and the aims of the Paris Agreement on climate change at the heart of the pandemic recovery. We need to make sure that countries have the resources to continue responding to the pandemic and to recover better, including through debt relief. And we need to ensure the equitable distribution of vaccines.

Raising ambition

It will be critical to raise ambition on three major fronts: poverty, gender equality, and climate action.

Ending poverty and ensuring equality will require a major expansion of social protection systems and a reimagining of education, health, jobs, and financial systems.

Tackling gender equality will require funding and political will to achieve equal participation in all realms of decision-making, advance economic inclusion, invest in the care economy, and enact laws and national emergency plans that prevent violence by men against women and girls. We have seen in the last year the effectiveness of women’s leadership in achieving better outcomes for all, and so can build on those successes.

Responding to the climate emergency will require:

  • halving emissions by 2030 (compared with 1990 levels)
  • ending environmentally harmful subsidies and the building of new coal-fired power plants
  • investing in renewable energy
  • shifting to sustainable food systems
  • taking advantage of nature-based solutions
  • ensuring just transitions
  • achieving net-zero emissions by the middle of the century

Beyond the benefits for the health of people and planet, the transition to net zero will bring substantial new opportunities for employment.

Finance and cooperation

Financing will be crucial and developing countries will need solid packages of support. This is a central focus of the initiative launched by the Secretary-General, together with the Prime Ministers of Canada and Jamaica, on Financing for Development in the Era of COVID-19 and Beyond. The entire financial system has started to shift, led by champions such as the Net-Zero Asset Owners Alliance, representing USD 5.7 trillion of assets under management.

We also need a reinvigorated multilateralism: networked to promote closer cooperation among international organizations, and inclusive to bring in civil society, the private sector, local authorities, and other sectors and stakeholders.

The summits, high-level meetings, and other key moments this year provide many opportunities to come together in the face of today’s multiple emergencies and heal people and planet. These include:

Pummeled as we have been by the pandemic, we can still draw strength from the human spirit displayed so widely and movingly across these challenging months: the heroics of essential workers, the collaboration of scientists to produce vaccines in record time, the passion of young climate activists, and the engagement of those calling for gender equality and racial justice.

The appetite for change is palpable. The 2030 Agenda provides the guiding light towards a safer, more equitable and peaceful world for today’s and future generations. The decisions taken over the next few months and years will have enormous impact on where we will be by 2030. The United Nations will continue to work actively with all partners to make the most of this pivotal moment and to propel the world into a transformative Decade of Action to deliver the SDGs.

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