The pandemic has unleashed a cascade of “mutually exacerbating catastrophes” that will continue to pile up unless the world gets a firm grip on the coronavirus crisis, according to a stark analysis from the Gates Foundation.
In the fourth iteration of the Goalkeepers report, an annual publication that tracks progress around the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the organisation paints a grim picture, warning that 25 years of development progress have been wiped out in just 25 weeks.
The 47-page analysis marks a notable contrast to previous versions of the report, which were largely upbeat about progress in fighting poverty, inequality and disease around the world.
According to the latest publication, the arrival of Covid-19 has seen this trend come to an abrupt halt. Drawing comparisons to the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic, the report notes that no aspect of society is likely to escape unscathed.
“In the blink of an eye, a health crisis became an economic crisis, a food crisis, a housing crisis, a political crisis,” the report says of the 1918 pandemic. “Everything collided with everything else.”
The report suggests the fallout from Covid-19 is following the same pattern, with the gains made in the SDGs put into reverse.
“As we write, Covid-19 has killed more than 850,000 people. It has plunged the world into a recession that is likely to get worse. And many countries are bracing for another surge in cases,” Bill and Melinda Gates write in the introduction.
“In past editions of the Goalkeepers Report - almost every time we have opened our mouths or put pen to paper, in fact - we have celebrated decades of historic progress in fighting poverty and disease.
“But we have to confront the current reality with candour: this progress has now stopped.”
The report argues that the worst impacts of the Covid pandemic will only be prevented through a collaborative global response.
“There is no such thing as a national solution to a global crisis,” it says. “All countries must work together to end the pandemic and begin rebuilding economies. The longer it takes us to realise that, the longer it will take (and the more it will cost) to get back on our feet.”
Otherwise known as the Global Goals, the SDGs are a series of 17 targets that United Nations member states agreed to five years ago, which aim to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure all people can “enjoy peace and prosperity” by 2030.
While many of the ambitious goals were off track even before the pandemic hit, the Goalkeepers report warns that few are now likely to be reached in the coming decade.
For instance data from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) estimates vaccination coverage, used as a proxy for the broader state of health systems, has dropped to levels last seen in the 1990s.
But the report stresses that the widest-ranging catastrophe has been economic, with every country taking a hit regardless of the actual spread of the virus and the sums of money involved “impossible to fathom”.
In terms of lost global gross domestic product (GDP), the world is currently experiencing the worst recession since the end of the Second World War - “when war production stopped in an instant, one entire continent and parts of another were destroyed, and three per cent of the world’s pre-war population was dead”.
The last time this many countries were simultaneously in recession, the report notes, was in 1870 - “literally two lifetimes ago”. The impact on individuals has been colossal: extreme poverty has risen by seven per cent in just a few months, with 37 million people now living on less than $1.90 a day.
This is in addition to an extra 68 million people who now live on less than $3.20 in lower-middle-income countries. Because women are more likely to work in the informal sector and still carry the burden of unpaid care work, they are disproportionately affected.
To tackle these colossal challenges, the report calls for international collaboration.
It uses vaccine distribution as a stark example of the importance of a joint response, referencing growing concerns about “vaccine nationalism”.
According to modeling from Northeastern University, this approach will not only prolong the pandemic but make it more deadly.
“If rich countries buy up the first two billion doses of vaccine instead of making sure they are distributed in proportion to the global population, then almost twice as many people could die from Covid-19,” the report warns.
And yet, nearly more than eight months into the pandemic, “it is not yet clear precisely how the world will organise a collaborative response”.
The bulk of the publication contains projections on how close the world will be towards meeting each SDG by 2030, based on modelling from the IHME.
Under a worst case scenario, prevalence of stunting among children under the age of five will still be at 26 per cent in 2030 - substantially higher than the goal of 15 per cent and just one per cent lower than the current rate.
The percentage of women able to access family planning could drop from 78 per cent to 75 per cent without a concerted effort.
And the proportion of people using unsafe or unimproved sanitation services could remain as high as 26 per cent - the 2030 target is zero.
Incidence of HIV could surge, according to IHME, from 0.26 new cases per 1,000 people last year to 0.54 in a worst-case scenario.
Similarly malaria infection rates could increase from 30 per 1,000 people to 36.
Meanwhile maternal mortality is projected to drop to 137 per 100,000 live births over the next decade, compared to 144 in 2019. The original target was a rate of 70.
These outcomes are not inevitable. The Goalkeepers analysis comes after a UK parliamentary report on Monday called for the SDGs to be used as a framework to “build back better”, both in the UK and internationally.
“I think we can all agree that we need to take action for a global recovery, not just a national recovery, and the SDGs are an oven ready recovery plan that outlines an opportunity for resilient and sustainable recovery,” said Lord McConnell, co-chair of the UK’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on the UN SDGs.
He added that the coming years “could go both ways”.
“We could find ourselves stuck in really difficult times for the next five years, or we could find that the pandemic is an opportunity to really progress and accelerate what was a fairly slow trajectory towards the delivery of the goals.”
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