The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the frailty of many aspects of global economic, social, and healthcare systems, and has also made visible the level of progress made in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The fallout from the pandemic requires strong cooperation among all nations, as well as non-state actors. An important question is whether the United Nations 2030 Agenda can provide a framework for recovery and help in accelerating the response to, and recovery from, the pandemic.
Answering this question necessitates a survey of how the global health system has responded to previous pandemics. The Global Health Security (GHS) Index indicates that, even after a number of disease outbreaks, all countries were facing major gaps in health security, and none of them were adequately prepared for the coronavirus pandemic. This despite recommendations made after previous pandemics, whether Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), H1N1, or Ebola, where similar weaknesses at the local, national, and international levels were exposed. After the Ebola outbreak of 2014, for example, the High-Level Panel on Global Response was convened to extract lessons on how to improve pandemic response.
As part of a global effort to bolster the global health security, the 2030 Agenda and its SDGs aim to address global health needs and to help make necessary improvements. So where do the SDGs fit in and what progress has been made?
The 2030 Agenda is itself a roadmap for pandemic response. Moreover, since the SDGs are universally applicable, they apply to all countries and can address disparities in pandemic response. SDG 3 on “good health and well-being” concerns itself with global health, aspiring for universal health coverage and fighting against communicable diseases, among many other objectives. One of the health targets of SDG 3 is for countries to develop their capabilities for early warning, risk reduction, and management of national and global health risks. There has been progress on this front, with the Global Action Plan for health from September 2019, for example, though there is much room for improvement. COVID-19 highlights again the necessity of building robust health systems.
A critical area in pandemic response is mitigating the economic fallout. As widely reported, the coronavirus pandemic has resulted, so far, in the loss of working hours equivalent to 305 million full-time jobs according to the International Labor Organization, trillions spent on stimulus packages, and an estimated $2.5 trillion rescue package that the UN Conference Trade and Development (UNCTAD) anticipates will be needed to support developing countries. Member state efforts to achieve the SDGs can help mitigate economic damage, especially in relation to partnerships.
In the response to COVID-19 so far, partnerships have been forged between international organizations, governments, and the private sector. In this context, SDG 17 on partnerships is central, and can be used as platform to help respond to health-related issues outlined in SDG 3. An example in the COVID-19 pandemic is the WhatsApp Coronavirus Information Hub, formed out of a partnership between the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and WhatsApp. The hub delivers guidance to people to help control the spread of COVID. Another example is the screening tool created through a partnership between Apple, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States, and the White House.
Another partnership can be found in the launch of the COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium, a collaboration between the public and private sector, the US Federal government, and academic and tech industry leaders, which opens up information and supercomputing resources to researchers in order to expedite the development of vaccines and potential treatments.
There is also the UN’s COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan for the most vulnerable countries, implemented in cooperation between UN agencies, international organizations and NGOs, and community-based actors. This plan highlights the crucial importance of local actors and NGOs. They are to actively participate and give input into the required pandemic responses at the field level, in keeping with the priorities and needs of the local context. This is an example of how capacity built by local actors through working to achieve the goals of the 2030 Agenda can have a direct impact on responses to COVID-19 and future pandemics.
An overarching element of the 2030 Agenda is the power that stakeholders and individuals can play in the realization of the SDGs. The Agenda pushes for locally-led responses and development. This is opening the door for greater local intervention as those on-the-ground can provide an efficient response. A people-centered approach is crucial during any pandemic, and remains so into the recovery period. Tackling the many unforeseen issues that arise as pandemics spread can be made easier by applying the lessons from approaches used to achieve goals the SDGs.
Above all, the coronavirus pandemic and its effect on all sectors has demonstrated the need for more attention to long-term, sustainable development. The 2030 Agenda encompasses the complexity, interconnectedness, and interdependency between health, development, peace, and stability through its 17 goals. In both achieving these goals and responding to pandemics, member states need to adopt a holistic approach, in which global health is accounted for. Improved health would help reduce poverty and hunger, improve education and gender equality, and strengthen peaceful societies and just institutions: all of which are encompassed in mutually-reinforcing goals.
The 2030 Agenda is a roadmap for multilateral cooperation and embodies the interlinkages between sustainability, economics, development, and conflict prevention. Its inclusive approach also gives attention to all pillars of the UN. Therefore, member states and other actors can be better prepared for the next outbreak by working to achieve the SDGs. Agenda 2030 sets the stage not only for recovery, but a path forward for health, prosperity, stability, peace, and multilateralism.
Ahmed Gad works in the SDG program at the International Peace Institute (IPI).