SDGs await attention of the world rising from COVID-19

Sustainable Development Report (SDR) 2020 titled ‘The Sustainable Development Goals and COVID-19’ said that there will be severe negative impacts on most of the United Nations (UN) mandated Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The world has been facing the worst public health and economic crisis witnessed in a century. The SDG Index 2020, which was topped by Sweden, reported that India is currently facing major challenges in ten of the seventeen SDGs

The SDG 2020 report reviewed performance of 193 UN member states, containing data on changes in SDG’s indicators over time. According to the report, the pandemic has severely affected SDGs including, no poverty; zero hunger; good health and well-being; decent work and economic growth; and reduced inequalities. In addition, the pandemic seems to have brought “immediate relief” in certain SDGs, such as responsible consumption and production; climate action; life under water; and life
on land.

No Poverty and Zero Hunger

An estimate in a report by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) showed that 90 million people globally would slip into “extreme poverty” (surviving on $1.9 a day) due to the pandemic. IMF’s report titled ‘World Economic Outlook: A Long and Difficult Ascent’ said that India would account for 40 million of the 90 million poor across the world and this would account for 44.4 per cent of India’s entire population. The report also explained that the pandemic has had a disproportionate effect on low-income households in many countries because they are concentrated in the informal sectors, are more vulnerable to job losses, have lower financial savings and have less access to healthcare. According to SDG Index, India has significant challenges remaining to be conquered, but it is on track of ending poverty in all its forms in the nation.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the global economic crisis that followed revealed how the world is unprepared in terms of food security. A report by the UN, ‘The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2020’ extrapolated that the world will not be able to meet the SDG of zero hunger by 2030. Government of India launched a food security welfare scheme in March 2020 as the nation geared up to deal with the spread of coronavirus. The aim of the program was to provide 5 kg free wheat/rice per person per month along with 1 kg free whole chana until November to migrants and poor in the country. The SDG report established that major challenges remain in achieving food security, improved nutrition, sustainable agriculture, and zero hunger, as the improvement in the score at present is insufficient to eventually attain the goal.

Good Health and Well-Being

Doctors and health professionals have been at the forefront in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. The miniscule virus brought the world’s healthcare sector to its knees and shed light on the vulnerability of health systems across the world, especially in high-income countries that were thought to be best prepared to face a pandemic. According to the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker, the Indian government’s response to the pandemic has been characterised as being amongst the most stringent. The country was put under a strict lockdown from March 24 and the government later shifted focus towards a gradual exit from the lockdown to deal with the significant economic fallout that individuals and businesses faced due to the extended lockdown.
This year saw public research laboratories, public institutions like the Indian Institutes of Technology, and private players including startups, rising to the challenge of working on COVID-19 testing kits, masks, alcohol-based sanitizers, personal protective equipment (PPEs) and ventilators, to overcome challenges of global supply chain disruptions and to cater to domestic needs.
India was ranked 145 of 195 countries in terms of access and quality of health services in a Lancet study released in 2018. Forbye, a study published in March 2020 by Brookings India, reported that the number of hospital beds in the country was measured at 0.55 beds per 1,000 people. Very little appears to have improved in the area of good well-being and health care in India. According to SDR 2020, major challenges remain in India in incidents of tuberculosis, traffic deaths, death rate attributed to air pollution, and life expectancy at birth.
The Union Budget 2020–21, released in February allocated less than 1.5 per cent of the GDP on healthcare. However, experts are laying their hopes on the announcements made by Nirmala Sitharaman, Minister of Finance, Government of India, to improve the score in health and well-being SDG. It involves the eradication of tuberculosis by 2025, Viability Gap funding to set up hospitals and medical colleges in Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities, and Public Private Partnerships model-based hospitals in aspirational rural districts to ensure cost effective delivery of care in rural areas. Although, the health and economic crisis that followed COVID-19 infections this year had the governments shift their focus to deal with the pandemic on an urgent basis by converting open spaces, trains, dharmshalas, into COVID-19 centers for testing and treatment of patients. Recently, the government of Maharashtra has initiated a drive to supervise door-to-door screening and detecting tuberculosis and leprosy cases in the state in an attempt to work on healthcare sector.

Quality Education

This year was unkind to the education system as well. Schools and colleges across the world had to switch to an online mode for classes and examination. Various studies, including that of researchers from Azim Premji University, found online education to be inadequate and ineffective for children in school. Developing countries faced the challenge of providing access to children from poor and marginalized community to online education. Teachers struggled in building connection and rapport with the students and students found it extremely difficult to thoroughly follow the concepts being taught and in completing assignments online. The report, ‘Myths of Online education’ found 60 per cent of the students in India attending schools before lockdown have not been able to attend classes, and the issues have further worsened in case of students with disabilities.
SDR 2020 explains that in relation to SDG 4 pertaining to quality education, India’s score has been stagnant due to a low completion rate of high school education. With the aim of making India a global knowledge superpower, the union cabinet approved a new National Education Policy (NEP) 2020. Prakash Javadekar, Minister of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, while announcing the policy said that the policy has been drafted keeping in view the global level of education in the 21st century. The reforms have come after generations getting spent in rusted systems for 34 years.
The NEP has provisions to change the school education system to 5 + 3 + 3 + 4 format, where schools will not have any rigid formation of streams of arts, commerce, science, and the students can take up whichever courses they want. The new policy also suggests a reduction of the school curriculum to core subjects with a vocational integration from Class 6 onwards. The government has decided to set up public universities, at par with institutions like the Indian Institute of Technology, Indian Institute of Management, to increase access to quality education in the nation. On the one hand, the academicians are hopeful of the new policy for it focuses on an all-round skill development of youth, and on the other hand, many fear that the implementation of the policy might benefit only the privileged and further the inequality in
education quality.

Clean Water and Sanitation

While the demand of water is growing, the quality and quantity of water supply is dwindling, owing to the scarcity of resources, which we have created ourselves.
The reducing quality and quantity of groundwater is a cause for concern for India for it is the highest user of groundwater for irrigation and domestic purposes. The Jal Shakti Ministry recently released data stating that approximately 278 lakh households have been provided with faucet water connections under the Jal Jeevan Mission. The program started last year with the aim to provide potable water in adequate quantity of prescribed quality on a regular and long-term basis through faucet connections, majorly in rural households.
The Delhi Jal Board launched a campaign for rainwater harvesting in view of the difference seen in the water demand and supply in the national capital, to ensure that the residents have 24X7 access
to water.
The government declared the country open defecation free after much effort under Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan, and it has now started taking steps for the liquid and solid fecal waste management. The funds allocated for water and sanitation, this year amounting to Rs 30,478 crore, displayed India’s commitment towards achieving SDG 6, which involves ensuring availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.
This year showed that better planning and measures are needed to track prevention programs and health care system preparedness and resilience to pandemics. It is important to realise that COVID-19 and lockdowns do not resolve the climate and biodiversity crises and are gravely amplifying income inequalities and other forms of inequalities across the globe.
In fact, as countries plan the post-COVID-19 recovery phase, it is indispensable that they put SDGs at the heart of policymaking.

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