COVID-19 and Development: The Great Disruptor | GoingGlobal@UNSW

Dr Sarah Cook | Commentary

COVID-19 shook the world as we entered year five of implementation of the 2030 United Nations Sustainable Development Agenda. This agenda represents a commitment by the international community to work in partnership to reduce all forms of poverty, deprivation and inequality, promote sustainable patterns of consumption, production and resource use, and address climate change. Undoubtedly, the pandemic and its associated economic and social crises will set back progress towards these goals and unsettle trajectories of change towards a more equitable and sustainable future. 

Without COVID-19, we – as members of the global development community - would now be assessing 5 years of progress, congratulating ourselves on some limited successes, identifying areas of stagnation or regression. We would note continued poverty and hunger; persistent inequalities and exclusions; conflict and displacement, and our poor stewardship of the environment and lack of will to abandon carbon intensive growth. We would identify some course corrections for the next decade, aspiring to do better, be more inclusive, collect more data and monitor more closely. 

A man and his son have their temperature checked before being allowed to enter a slum area in Manila, Philippines.
A man and his son have their temperature checked before being allowed to enter a slum area in Manila, Philippines. Credit: Ezra Acayan/Getty Images (via The Guardian)

With COVID-19 we know instead that targets for health, poverty, inequality, gender equity, education among others are already being severely set back by a health crisis that has shut down economies and left millions destitute. We see in the media the devastating consequences for millions in overcrowded settlements, refugee camps, migration routes or simply trying to return home; those unable to access food, safe water, routine health care or essential services. The humanitarian response to people in greatest need is hampered by a lack of air transport and resources. Women and children’s lives are endangered without access to basic maternal health services; regular programs of immunisation have been disrupted (Nelson, 2020), potentially causing lasting damage to a new generation. Evidence from previous health crises, such as Ebola, suggests that more lives (particularly of women and children) may be lost by those who are unable to access critical health care, or from a resurgence of preventable childhood diseases such as measles, than from COVID-19.

Furthermore, many low- and middle-income countries, after years of post-Global Financial Crisis austerity, have weak health and social protection systems, and limited fiscal capacity to meet basic population needs, protect workers and jobs or expand social benefits (Ortiz and Cummins, 2019). On the contrary, many are servicing – and some may default on - significant debt burdens (Stiglitz et al., 2020; Doherty, 2020). Individuals and countries face stark choices – between lockdown or starvation, between protecting populations or meeting financial obligations.

So there is little doubt that the pandemic will throw us off course for achieving the SDGs. How far depends on actions and decisions being taken now by national and global leaders. These decisions will determine how resilient our own societies and economies will be in future, as well as whether we find a path towards solidarity and a renewal of commitments at the global level – through development assistance, debt relief, renewed investments in the international system and support for global public goods.

The cityscape of Beirut, Lebanon is visible behind trees in the foreground.
Normally polluted, skies in Beirut, Lebanon are clearing. Credit: Getty Images (via BBC)

Two opportunities for transformation in particular have been highlighted by this period of health crisis and economic lockdown. First, many commentators note the reduced economic activity, emissions, pollution and resource depletion which can translate into benefits to the environment, human health and well-being that are never fully incorporated into our economic cost benefit calculus. We are already hearing scientists and activists mobilising to use this opportunity to change individual and corporate behaviours and public policies towards delivering a low carbon sustainable economy. Second, the crisis has focused attention on the equally undervalued, under- or unpaid, and largely feminised resource of ‘care’ – whether provided by the frontline health care workforce, other essential workers, social care providers, or on a daily basis within the household.  Can this be an opportunity to revalue and invest in the work of care and social reproduction that underpins our ‘productive’ economy?

What would an economy look like that properly valued these natural environmental and care resources, created ‘green’ and ‘caring’ jobs and invested in social and environmental infrastructure? These are not new ideas (Stiglitz et al., 2010), and for many the vision of the Sustainable Development Agenda was precisely about the transformations needed to fundamentally rethink the relationship between economic, environmental and social goals to deliver social justice and sustainability on a global scale. Taking advantage of any opportunities for transformation arising from COVID-19 will require solidarity across groups and nations, an appetite for global solutions, and action at the local level by all of us.

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Sen, A, Fitoussi, J.P & Stiglitz, J.E, 2010. Mismeasuring Our Lives: Why GDP doesn't add up. [online] Weatherland Center for International Affairs. Available at: <> [Accessed 21 May 2020].

Stiglitz, J.E, Phelps, E.S & Reinhart, C.M, 2020. Restructuring Argentina’S Private Debt Is Essential [online] Project Syndicate. Available at: <> [Accessed 21 May 2020].

UN News. 2020. UN Issues Appeal To Bolster COVID-19 ‘Logistics Backbone’, Warns Global Response Could Stutter To A Halt. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 21 May 2020].