The Sustainable Development Goals, setbacks, and COVID-19

The seventeen Sustainable Development Goals

Fran Baum1, Lauren Paremoer2, Joanne Flavel1, Connie Musolino1, Ron Labonte3

1Stretton Health Equity, University of Adelaide, Adelaide, Australia.
2Department of Political Studies, University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa
3University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Canada

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have impaired the world’s ability to reach the United Nations’ (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which aim for a world in which both planet and people flourish.

The SDGs link human wellbeing with the sustainability of the planet, but the responses to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and international agencies have made it less likely that most SDGs will be achieved.

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and what is needed to achieve the SDGs and a world in which people can flourish, is the subject of our new article in the British Medical Journal (BMJ).


Change is needed if we are to meet the SDGs

In 2015 the United Nations adopted the SDGs, setting 169 targets to be achieved by 2030. These targets, more ambitious than the previous Millennium Development Goals, link human development with environmental health. Even before COVID-19 there was widespread doubt about whether governments would have the will to achieve the targets. Our article examines the pandemic’s subsequent impact on SDG progress across the five dimensions of Planet, People, Prosperity, Peace, and Partnership, and discusses the changes required to meet their targets.


The pandemic did (briefly) offer some respite for planetary health (e.g. the reduction in air travel, lockdowns on industrial manufacturing), but this was followed by increased pressure on governments to reduce environmental safeguards to build economic recovery plans. While economic responses to the pandemic saw the immediate adoption of new policies, no government has shown similar urgency for the existential threat of climate change. Russian President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine saw many countries pivot back to fossil fuels under the banner of ensuring national energy security. Activists must continue to pressure governments to place long-term health above short-term economic growth, and to not be diverted from their agreements to achieve net zero-emissions by 2050.

People and Prosperity

The SDG of elimination of extreme poverty was ambitious even before COVID-19. The pandemic is estimated to have pushed almost 100 million more people into extreme poverty in 2021. It also led to higher rates of food insecurity, increased violence against women, girls and LGBTQIA+ people, and greater income and employment losses for women compared with men. The pandemic also saw those in precarious work more likely to lose their job, and those who did not, often in frontline care, health and service roles, became at higher risk of contracting COVID-19. What the International Labour Organization calls ‘decent work’ is an important pathway to prosperity, and is achievable for all through strengthened labour rights, protection of trade unions, legislated decent pay and working conditions, and provision of a robust social safety net.

Scarcity of the needed economic resources to achieve this is not the problem; rather, it is the gross maldistribution of wealth which worsened dramatically during the pandemic. We have more than enough wealth for all countries to meet the SDGs, but only if governments embrace tax justice and income redistribution, public funding for universal social protection, and equitable participatory governance to hold all public and private economic actors to account. In turn, this requires a change in understandings of what prosperity means, and a movement away from GDP growth as a fundamental metric that perpetuates colonial models of “extractivist” development. Achieving the SDGs requires alternative measures of prosperity that factor in human wellbeing.


Peace is threatened by civil wars, regional conflicts, terrorism, and attacks on human rights activists. At the peak of COVID-19 around 100 countries with fully or partly closed borders did not make an exception for asylum seekers, and the pandemic also provided cover for restrictive legislation to silence critical voices, clawing back of civil liberties and democratic systems, and the use of excessive force in 79 countries during protests. A peaceful world is needed for all the other SDGs to be met, as clearly illustrated by conflicts in Ethiopia, Yemen, and Ukraine.


The SDGs also call for improved partnerships between sectors as vital. During the pandemic multi-lateral systems failed as shown by the extent of vaccine inequity. COVAX and other measures designed to prevent such inequities failed in the face of rich countries using their wealth to purchase vaccines, leaving other countries far behind.

We argue that transformative political, social, and economic reforms are required to disrupt business and government as usual and promote wellbeing for all. The reforms we advocate for will redistribute wealth and power through tax justice and an economic system based on prosperity for all rather than a focus on growth and profits for a few. The reforms would also reduce carbon dependence and protect and restore the planet’s ecological systems.  While there is growing support among the public, these reforms won’t happen until there is sufficient political will to implement them. 

Following this article’s authors on Twitter at: @baumfran, @joanne_flavel, @ConMarguerite, and @LabonteRonald.


Image: United Nations, used in line with guidelines for use.

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