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Covid-19 has wreaked havoc with social justice — but we can and must effect change through bold policymaking

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Dr Chris Jones is Chief researcher in the Department of Systematic Theology and Ecclesiology, and also head of the Unit for Moral Leadership at Stellenbosch University

The Covid-19 pandemic pushed a further 124 million people into extreme poverty globally. Almost one in three people worldwide, 2.37 billion, did not have access to adequate food in 2020. But not everything is doom and gloom. We can accelerate our way out of these crises with specific, dedicated SDG interventions. 

On 20 February every year, people across the globe observe World Day of Social Justice.  

The objectives of the commemoration of this day support global efforts to look for solutions for sustainable development and to realise as many as possible aspirations outlined in the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General António Guterres’ Our Common Agenda report, such as poverty eradication, advancing full employment and decent work, global social protection, gender equality, and social justice for all.

In this article, I provide certain perspectives on sustainable development, which underpin, among others, social justice.

More specifically, I look into certain crises as exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic; how they have thrown the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals 2030 (SDGs) off track; but fortunately, also how we effectively can address these challenges with dedicated SDG interventions, through the values of trust and solidarity. 

Covid-19 is upending the world

Let’s first look at how the current pandemic, with less than a decade to go (to 2030), threw the SDGs off track.

The global gross domestic product (GDP) decreased by an estimated 3.5% in 2020

The pandemic pushed a further 124 million people into extreme poverty, widening the gender poverty gap. Almost one in three people worldwide (2.37 billion) did not have access to adequate food in 2020. This is an increase of nearly 320 million people in just one year.

Early estimates indicate a potential increase of up to 45% in child mortality in the coming years. This is because of reductions in access to food and shortfalls in health services.

During 2020 the total working hours fell by 8.8% – the equivalent of 255 million full-time jobs.

According to the “Our Common Agenda” report, more women around the world are becoming victims of violence in their own homes due to restricted movement, social isolation and economic insecurity.  

A study by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the Pardee Center for International Futures at the University of Denver captured, among others, the multidimensional effects of the pandemic over the next decade. It found that “Covid could drive the number of people living in extreme poverty to over 1 billion by 2030, with a quarter of a billion pushed into extreme poverty as a direct result of the pandemic.”

Ground-breaking SDG investments

Fortunately, everything is not doom and gloom. We can accelerate our way out of these crises with specific, dedicated SDG interventions. 

Even when Covid-19 implications are taken into consideration, the UNDP/Pardee study demonstrates that an ambitious, but attainable set of integrated SDG investments has the potential to exceed the world’s development trajectory prior to the pandemic.

Let’s look at how some of the ground-breaking SDG investments could make a difference.

Under the “SDG Push” scenario, 48 targeted investments in governance, social protection, green economy, and digitalisation can reduce the number of people living in extreme poverty by 146 million in 2030, relative to the “Covid Baseline” scenario — narrowing the gender gap, with 74 million women and girls lifted out of poverty. While the risk of sliding into poverty is highest in war-torn and conflict-ridden countries, these are also the places where the greatest gains can be made: a majority of the 146 million people escaping poverty, including 40 million women and girls, live in these countries.

The advantages of the SDG interventions are echoed across additional indicators of human development, such as nutrition and education. With these interventions, an estimated 128 million adults and 16 million children will be able to escape malnutrition by 2030, and the proportion of students graduating from upper secondary school will improve from 66% to 70%.

Realising the goals

These interventions, according to the UNDP/Pardee study, are ambitious, even radical, and necessitate behavioural changes at all levels of society. To realise these goals, the effectiveness and efficiency of governments must be improved. Governments and other partners must provide people with better access to basic services, boost health and social protection transfers, improve mobile and internet connectivity, and strengthen research and development investments. Access to inclusive, effective, and accountable governance will be vital.

Citizens can do their part by changing their food, energy, and water consumption practices. Furthermore, global coordination on climate change, including carbon taxes and fossil fuel subsidies, must improve.

And, in order for all of this to be sustainable, the relationship between nature, climate, and economics must be rebalanced.

The pandemic has revealed the consequences of deepening systemic inequality and prioritising growth beyond Earthly boundaries. However, even in the midst of a catastrophe, there is room for bold and courageous decisions. In recent months, we have witnessed policymaking that only a few years ago appeared to be impossible.

Lebanon and Brazil, for example, have initiated temporary basic income. In just a few weeks, Colombia’s ground-breaking digital solutions helped reach over two million people with a new social protection plan. Furthermore, the pressure on women to perform unpaid domestic work during lockdown has prompted calls for investments in the care economy, similar to those made in Uruguay.

As the technical lead of the UN’s socioeconomic response to Covid-19, the UNDP spearheads integrated approaches that can move us beyond the optimising status quo, to reimagining development paths, connecting improbable dots, and eventually creating the conditions for profoundly alternative futures.

This is their compass as the UNDP works with governments to achieve the 2030 Agenda’s vision and goals. Through an unprecedented crisis, we have an exceptional chance to accelerate and change global development. We can enhance future development and ensure that our new trajectory is more resilient than the one we were on before the pandemic by diverting our efforts along proven development pathways. By using this opportunity, we will move one step closer to making social justice a reality for millions around the world. DM

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