Mapping the impact of COVID-19 to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals is highlighting opportunities for change and areas for action. The Resilience Shift asked Jasper Hilkhuijsen and Tammy Tse to give us their perspective from driving the SDG Taskforce for Arup in East Asia and informed by their work in sustainability for the built environment.
The recent COVID-19 outbreak is sending shockwaves across the world and at this point it is far from clear how and when this disastrous pandemic will end. The associated unprecedented worldwide challenges to our society and cities expose how ill-prepared, interconnected and vulnerable we are in terms of health, economic prosperity and resilience.
Several characteristics of the chain of events as well as some answers on how to tackle this and future outbreaks are integrated in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In this time of crisis, the SDGs can function as a useful guide to action.
While the outbreak affects all humans, some are hit harder than others whether due to their geographic location or social status. This especially applies to entire societies in developing nations. one of the World Health Organization’s primary concerns is the spread of the virus in countries with weaker health care systems. Yet it also applies to vulnerable and marginalized individuals in developed countries since for example homeless people are identified as a high-risk group. SDG 1 – No Poverty, describes this as the need to increase the resilience of the poor and those in vulnerable situations and reduce their exposure and vulnerability to shocks and disasters (target 1.4).
To counter direct economic losses and rescue tumbling economies several governments are in the process of providing emergency relief packages to businesses, so the economy can bounce back quickly. Evidence of the unprecedented scale of this aid is the record-breaking US$2.2tn package in the US. Protecting society and substantially decreasing the direct economic losses caused by disasters like COVID-19 is part of SDG 11 – Sustainable Cities & Communities (target 11.5). This is urgently needed as it is feared further damage to the global economy will send millions of people into poverty and will cause serious setbacks to SDG 2 – Zero Hunger (target 2.1). In India, the imposed lock down has led to a chaotic mass migration of informal workers who make up about 90% of the workforce and are responsible for about 50% of India’s GDP. Without jobs they cannot eat.
Seth Schultz, Executive Director, The Resilience Shift, noted that, “A crisis like COVID-19 highlights the interdependence of urban communities, the built environment, critical infrastructure and the economy”.
“Integrated urbanism focuses on creating cities that enable communities to thrive, and in time of crisis to survive and recover quickly”, he added.
During the past weeks, much focus has been on the areas concerned by SDG 3 – Health & Well-being, the need to globally end epidemics and combat communicable diseases (target 3.3) along with the urgency to provide universal health coverage and access to essential medicines and vaccines for all (target 3.8). Remarkably, while under ordinary circumstances it takes months if not years to forge global collaborations, the virus has governments, private companies and institutions across the world scrambling to partner up and compete to develop a vaccine (target 3.b).
In many countries a recent surge in confirmed cases has led to overwhelmed healthcare facilities at hospitals and associated intensive care units. Even as only limited data is available, it is widely assumed that quality and capacity in developing nations needs to be strongly increased to cope with the outbreak (target 3.c). These countries may need support to increase the resilience of their hospitals, and to secure safe, clean drinking water and sanitation facilities for people in displacement camps and informal settlements where diseases can spread quickly.
New reports traced China’s first confirmed case back to mid-November 2019, and by mid-January 2020 Chinese officials reported the COVID-19 epidemic. Only two months later the outbreak became a global crisis. This sequence of events reveals the need to strengthen the ability of early warning systems, risk reduction and management of national and global health risks (target 3.d). It also highlights the importance of effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels, which is a key component of SDG 16 – Peace, Justice and Strong Institution. Information needs to be shared in a timely manner, accurately and to the organizations that can undertake relevant action (target 16.6). While all efforts to deal with the crisis are highly appreciated, earlier and more effective action might have saved many lives and reduced economic impact.
SDG 17 – Partnerships for the goals, calls to enhance global collaboration for sustainable development have been complemented by multi-stakeholder partnerships (target 17.16). Especially when dealing with an escalating global crisis, the need to mobilise and share knowledge, expertise, technology and financial resources is preeminent.
While the pandemic is a pitch-black chapter in our world’s recent history, some positive news has emerged. We have seen some remarkable environmental impacts such as the significant reduction of pollution in China and the murky water in the canals of Venice improving in quality, with fish visible in the water below. Arguably this demonstrates potential contributions to SDG 3 – Health & Well-being, SDG 13 – Climate Action, SDG 14 – Life below Water and SDG 15 – Life on Land.
Despite self-isolation and social distancing, a strong increase in social bonding can be witnessed, aligned with SDG 11 – Sustainable Cities & Communities. Social media positively contributes in people’s ability to reach out, connect and check-up with one another and communities, individuals and organisations are offering help in various ways, ranging from providing entertainment programs for at home to the distribution of basic supplies to those in need.
On an unprecedented scale and across the world, governments, private companies and institutions are sharing knowledge and resources. When there is a desperate need that directly affects all inhabitants of our planet, we can set our differences aside and act as one. An essential lesson that can be learnt from COVID-19 is that when it really matters, the world is able to fight together for a common goal, reflecting the essence of SDG 17 – Partnership for the Goals.
The outbreak enables us to revaluate our lives and reflect on the impact of the way we live on each other and the planet. As Jo da Silva, Resilience Shift Board member and global sustainable development leader at Arup, said in her recent essay ‘Disaster v crisis? How the nature of the Covid-19 crisis affects our response’, “There are lessons to be learned from how we all respond to Covid-19, including the possibilities for global change, signalled by how the health of the planet improves in the short term, as human activity is forced to slow down”.
Things that many of us took for granted or neglected – our freedom, abundance of products and services, self-centredness and irresponsible dealing with finite natural resources – might never be the same again. COVID-19 shows the interconnectedness between us all as humans, our planet and the world’s economies. It is hoped that this causes a step change in our realisation of the utmost importance and urgency to achieve all 17 SDGs.
With thanks to Jasper Hilkhuijsen and Tammy Tse
Jasper Hilkhuijsen is an Urban Designer in Arup with a background in Architecture. He is an expert in comprehensive territorial strategies, public realm design, Transit Oriented Development and place making strategies. Currently he is Arup’s East Asia SDG Taskforce Leader, driving the Sustainable Development agenda across the region and delivering value to clients, society and the environment.
Tammy Tse is an experienced Sustainability Consultant in Arup focusing on sustainability framework and strategies formulation for corporates and city governments. As a Chartered Environmentalist, she is keen to drive SDG with her clients. She is one of the key members of the Arup’s East Asia SDG Taskforce, driving to incorporate Sustainable Development agenda into Arup’s projects.