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EXCLUSIVE: Stark realities, critical choices define UN SDG Report 2021


The UN report spells it out starkly that the Covid-19 crisis has wiped out 20 years of progress in the education sector.

By Salam Rajesh

UN secretary general Antonio Guterres makes a sordid comment when he says, “More than a year into the global pandemic, millions of lives have been lost, the human and economic toll has been unprecedented, and recovery efforts so far have been uneven, inequitable and insufficiently geared towards achieving sustainable development”. His comments come as part of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals Report 2021 which outlines a rather dark picture of the pandemic and the post-pandemic scenario.

The executive summary of the report paints a rather bleak imagery of things happening within and beyond the pandemic that has ripped apart the fabrics of society and human lives since the deadly coronavirus was first detected in December 2019. The phrase “stark realities, critical choices” sums up the chaos that enfolds in every aspect of human society across continents, sparing none and particularly ravaging the poor and the marginalized.

Liu Zhenmin, UN under-secretary-general for Economic and Social Affairs, supplements the findings in the report, stating that, “In 2020, the global extreme poverty rate rose for the first time in over 20 years. Hundreds of millions of people were pushed back into extreme poverty and chronic hunger. The pandemic has exposed and intensified inequalities within and among countries. The world remains woefully off track in meeting the Paris Agreement. Biodiversity is declining, and terrestrial ecosystems are being degraded at alarming rates. The pandemic has taught us that weaknesses in data and information systems present an added and enormous challenge to decision makers”.

In defining SDG1 (No Poverty), the report outlines that the pandemic has ‘led to the first rise in extreme poverty in a generation’ wherewith an astounding additional population of around 119 to 124 million people were pushed back into extreme poverty in the year 2020 with the outbreak of the Covid-19 crisis and the subsequent lockdowns in almost all of the countries across the globe.

It equally is sad news on the SDG2 (Zero Hunger) front where it is being reported that the global pandemic is exacerbating world hunger where an estimated additional population of 83 to 132 million people are likely to have experienced hunger, sometimes extreme in nature defined as abject hunger with no other alternative than to seek food from benefactors.

Compared to an estimated population of 628 million undernourished people in the year 2014, it is being estimated that the pandemic induced a sharp rise in the figure, with estimation of about 820 million undernourished people during 2020. The Covid-19 crisis effected socio-economic crises worldwide and millions lost their jobs. Farmers lost their sources of revenue as they were unable to sell their products, and migrant workers were left stranded when lockdown was imposed for indefinite period.

On the SDG3 (Good Health and Well-Being) front, there is equal bad news for all. The UN report does not hold back when it says that the pandemic had set back years of progress in the health sector. The more alarming factor is that the pandemic had shortened life expectancy, with countries reporting shortage of medical equipments and facilities, support staff and health workers. There are reports galore of people dying from lack of oxygen supply and inadequate facilities in hospitals. Videos of exhausted and understaffed health workers are going viral.

The truly sad and pathetic picture of the pandemic is the impact on the education sector where millions of school going children has suffered setbacks. The UN report spells it out starkly that the Covid-19 crisis has wiped out 20 years of progress in the education sector. As is true of in Manipur or in any other pocket across the globe, the report sums up by stating that as a result of the pandemic an additional population of 101 million or 9 percent of the children in the range group from Grade I to Grade VIII standards fell below the minimum reading proficiency levels during 2020. This implies that young school going kids are likely to experience mental regress in their studies, having lost the opportunity to learn first-hand by interacting with their teachers.

 SDG5 (Gender Equality) has bad news for the fairer sex, where it is being estimated that as a reason of the pandemic nearly 10 million girls are at risk of forced child marriage over the next decade. Distress in the agriculture sector and losses of jobs have the potentiality to force debt-ridden parents to marry off their under-age daughters. This is in addition to an estimated 100 million girls who were projected to become child brides before the onset of the pandemic.

A pathetic picture of scores of humanity deprived of safe drinking water during the pandemic is written large in the report, stressing the need to redefine SDG6 (Clean Water and Sanitation) more crucially by the signatory countries. The report states that during the pandemic year 2020 nearly 2 billion people lacked safely managed drinking water. This was in supplementation to 3.6 billion people lacking safely managed sanitation, while 2.3 billion people lacked basic hygiene.

The crux of the report with reference to SDG8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth) is the truly hard hitting statement that the pandemic had led to the loss of nearly 255 million full-time jobs across the continents, which is about four times the number of jobs lost during the global financial crisis during 2007 and 2009. This is comparatively lesser in magnitude to the estimated 1.6 billion informal economy workers who were left stranded by the pandemic. The more pathetic scenario is that the pandemic could lead to more educated youths neither employed, in school nor in training – indicating increase in mental stress and physical retardation amongst youths.

For every 100,000 people, 311 are refugees. This stark reality defines SDG10 (Reduced Inequalities), wherein the pandemic has induced an increase in the proportion of refugees. The report shows an increase almost double the proportion in 2010. Economic regress, failure of crops and loss of jobs have pushed marginalized people to the limit, seeking refuge in cities or in more favourable locations. The report talks of as many as 4,186 deaths and disappearances along migratory routes during 2020.

In the midst of the human woe and suffering impacted by the pandemic, is the ultimate axe falling down on humanity as climate crisis worsens. The UN report referring to SDG13 (Climate Action), states that the world is woefully off track in meeting the Paris Climate Agreement to limit temperature rise well below 1.5 degree Celsius by 2030. The global average temperature during 2020 was 1.2 degree Celsius above the pre-industrial baseline, indicating that despite tall talks on climate adaptation and mitigation work plans, the climate crisis continues unabated, unchecked.

Reflecting upon the despair of the world community on the current situation, Guterres calls upon the global community to pick up the pace of achieving the SDGs in their true spirit, “The Sustainable Development Goals are more important now than ever. Now is the time to secure the well-being of people, economies, societies and our planet”.

(The writer is a media professional working on environmental issues. He can be contacted at [email protected])

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