‘COVID-19 will unsettle SDG targets in Asia-Pacific countries’

COVID-19 is expected to have short- and long-term impacts across the Sustainable Development Goals, including those on health, livelihoods, and the environment. Copyright: Asian Development Bank, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). This image has been cropped.

Speed read

  • COVID-19 will have short- and long-term impact on all SDGs
  • Losses may reach US$43 billion in developing Asia excluding China
  • Pandemic shows Asian countries capable of taking drastic action

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[MANILA] The coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) will have both short- and long-term impacts across the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), says a top UN official.

Just what those long-term impacts are will depend on the time it takes to “contain and mitigate the outbreak globally, with life returning to normal, allowing both global and local level production, consumption and investment to recover”, Kanni Wignaraja, UN assistant secretary-general and director of the UNDP regional bureau for Asia and the Pacific, tells SciDev.Net.

“With the right mix of economic policies and fiscal stimulus, investments in healthcare and social protections, we can move to recovery pathways that do not take us back to the same levels of waste and pollution, inequality and joblessness, but ensure greater economic, environmental and social sustainability”

Kanni Wignaraja, United Nations Assistant Secretary-General and Director of the UNDP Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific

In the short-term, the virus has already had “tangible effects” on SDG 8, decent work and economic growth, as well as “reinforced the importance of critical SDG 3, good health and wellbeing, targets related to addressing communicable diseases and improving access to healthcare,” Smita Nakhooda, a senior results management specialist at the Asian Development Bank (ADB), tells SciDev.Net.

The ADB, in a new study, estimates that the pandemic could result in a loss of US$16 – 43 billion across developing Asia, excluding China. The worst affected sector is tourism, which could spell disaster for Asia-Pacific countries dependent on this industry, including Cambodia, Maldives, Palau and Thailand.
“There is already anecdotal evidence that tourism arrivals in many developing Asian economies have dropped by 50 to 90 per cent in February 2020 relative to the previous year,” the study notes.
COVID-19, which was first detected three months ago in the Chinese city of Wuhan, has now resulted in over 300,000 confirmed cases globally and nearly 14,000 deaths as of 22 March.
“The global COVID-19 outbreak is demonstrating that governments in the Asia-Pacific region can take urgent and even drastic actions to contain such fast-driving crises,” says Wignaraja. She points to Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam as among countries in the region that are “are taking timely measures to ensure the public are informed, advocating the practice of social distancing and providing access to testing and appropriate care”.
While the current focus is on addressing and managing the immediate requirements of populations in need, Wignaraja says that the impact on SDGs will play out over a decade-long horizon, hence, subsequent steps that must be taken by governments, the private sector and society at large will be critical in shaping that impact.

SDGs 2019 Asia Pacific tracker

“A key issue is whether the world returns to the old normal’— which places many countries on a path that is not compatible with attaining several SDGs, or on a ‘new normal’ that holds on to the adjusted practices that are good for sustainable development,” says Wignaraja.   
For example, the social distancing and other containment measures have demonstrated the viability of changing certain behaviours. Less international and domestic transport are having a positive near-term impact on improved air quality and lower greenhouse gas emissions.
“With the right mix of economic policies and fiscal stimulus, investments in healthcare and social protections, we can move to recovery pathways that do not take us back to the same levels of waste and pollution, inequality and joblessness, but ensure greater economic, environmental and social sustainability,” she adds.

The Asia-Pacific region, even without the COVID-19, needed extra efforts to ensure achievement of the 17 SDGs, according to a UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) report that is due to be launched officially on 25 March.  


According to an ESCAP press note, the findings of the report “sound the alarm for the region to urgently foster sustainable use of natural resources, increase its resilience against natural disasters and adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change through integrated policies”.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.