Avoiding Pandemics will Require 20/20 Vision on Sustainable Development

May 14, 2020

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The year 2020 started out with great optimism for human development.  In January, the UN Secretary General Antonio Gutierrez launched the “Decade of Action” to realign national and global priorities around key actions needed to ensure the world could achieve the Sustainable Development Goals – a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity by 2030.  On the eve of 2020, the Secretary General called for renewed vigour with “acceleration actions” to address the world’s biggest challenges — ranging from poverty and gender to climate change and inequality.

The UN Development Programme responded to this call to action with its Climate Promise, a bold multi-million-dollar initiative to support countries like Ukraine to develop and implement their own nationally determined strategies for climate action.  We also further stepped up our six “signature solutions” to support countries in the targeted SDG areas of poverty reduction, democratic governance, crisis prevention, the environment, clean energy and women’s empowerment. UNDP’s integrated approach to accelerating progress on the SDGs was demonstrating immediate results and building momentum.

And then came the coronavirus, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic to further expose deep rifts between and within societies, laying bear inequalities and subjecting those on the wrong side of the economic and digital divides to even greater risks than the general population. The challenges brought on by the coronavirus are accentuating the urgency of the SDGs, further reaffirming the need to accelerate coherent, integrated and efficient actions to achieve them so that if and when a global crisis like this does appear, it can be confronted with confidence, and with no one left behind.

A world formed and informed by the SDGs

Although the situation seems dire, it could be worse – much worse – had it not been for the progress the world has achieved to date. Extreme poverty has reached the lowest point since tracking began, widespread immunization has increased people’s resistance to many diseases, there has been a dramatic decrease in child mortality rates and a big increase in people’s access to electricity – often powered by renewable sources, according to SDG Progress Reports 2019. We must not let the current crisis disrupt our progress.

We know a world fully formed and informed by the SDGs will be much more resilient to shocks, such as those caused by pandemics or natural disasters. SDG2, for examples, calls for improved nutrition – we know that strong, healthy bodies are better able to resist infections.  One of the principle targets of SDG3 calls for universal health coverage, including access to quality essential healthcare services and “access to safe, effective, quality and affordable essential medicines and vaccines for all.”

SDG3 also calls for strengthening the capacity of all countries for early warning, risk reduction and management of national and global health risks. We know that the greatest weapon against the disease is education, which is addressed by SDG4. SDG6 calls for improved sanitation to create conditions that are less likely to transmit viruses.

SDG9 calls for fostering innovation to solve crises like this – very much like what is taking place in Ukraine’s Accelerator Lab and other similar programmes at UNDP.  Lastly, as global challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic can only be solved through worldwide cooperation, SDG17 calls for increasing global partnerships and solidarity – like that exemplified by the partnership between Ukraine and the United Nations Development Programme.

Adjusting Ukraine’s SDG lenses

Ukraine is taking the SDG framework very seriously and has integrated relevant SDG targets into 162 Governmental regulatory legal acts with 4,300 planned actions. The effort is paying off and progress has been measured in 15 of the 17 SDGs. Ending poverty (Goal 1), for example, dropped from 58.3 percent in 2015 to 43.2 percent in 2018 (from the Ukraine 2020 VNR). During the same period, Ukraine’s life expectancy at birth increased by 2.1 years, mean years of schooling by 2.2 years, and expected years of schooling by 2.7 years, according to UNDP’s 2019 Human Development Report.

All of these areas are contributing to the country’s resilience in the face of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Ukraine is preparing to share its progress with the international community by joining 14 other countries to present its Voluntary National Review on the SDGs during the next High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development.

UNDP is working closely with the Government of Ukraine in support of its efforts to achieve the SDGs. Much of this work has been in the healthcare sector, where we have been working with the Government since 2015 to improve efficiencies and increase transparency in public procurement.  This support has significantly reduced delivery times, introduced modern affordable medicines, improved quality of procured medicines, vaccines and medical products as well as achieved dramatic savings for the state budget.

We are also strengthening the government’s institutional capacities in a wide range of other areas including in democratic governance, environmental management and in promoting a peaceful recovery in the conflict-affected areas of the eastern region.  In all our programmes we emphasize the importance of prevention, preparedness, and crisis management.

Drawing on our global experience with other outbreaks such as Ebola, HIV, SARS, TB and malaria, as well as our long history of working with the private and public sector, UNDP is helping Ukraine to urgently and effectively respond to COVID-19 – in many cases building on or reorienting existing programmes. For instance, using a network of regional coordinators built to support a housing improvement and energy efficiency programme, UNDP has distributed COVID-19 information posters to homeowners’ associations countrywide, reaching almost 2 million people. UNDP has also provided personal protective equipment and disinfectant to hundreds of frontline medics battling the outbreak, and to police.

 And – throughout this crisis and beyond – we will continue to strongly support Ukraine’s national SDG strategy to address the problems associated with a shrinking middle class, high levels of informal and vulnerable employment, gaps in social protection, emigration of skilled and young workers, and growing inequality, caused by uneven access to technology and education and exacerbated among poorer and more vulnerable groups by the climate crisis and the present coronavirus pandemic.

20/20 vision is an expression that ophthalmologists use to describe the ability to see perfectly, without needing to wear glasses or contact lenses.  Let us hope that the COVID-19 pandemic that continues to threaten many development achievements in 2020 will give us the vision to usher in a decade of ambitious action to deliver the Goals by 2030. If we can build a world formed and informed by the SDGs we should be able to avoid future pandemics like this one, or at least respond more effectively if and when they do occur.  If we do build back better with 20/20 vision, we will hopefully all move forward together toward a brighter future filled with peace and prosperity.