The Impact of COVID-19 on Sustainable Development


The Covid-19 pandemic is reshaping our world and has demonstrated the need for stronger responses to crises. The crisis has shown the necessity of efficient health systems and social services worldwide, alongside access to key infrastructure. Without doubt, the Covid pandemic is a setback for sustainable development, as it not only triggered a severe health crisis worldwide but also provoked unrest and uncertainties, impacting all three dimensions of sustainable development: economic, social and environmental. This paper examines what consequences the Covid-19 pandemic has had on the three dimensions of sustainable development and the best practices for the way forward.

Key words: Covid-19, sustainable development, SDGs, recovery, environment, society, economy.


The recent Covid-19 pandemic we all have been faced with is reshaping our world and has demonstrated the need for stronger national and global responses and more resilient communities. The crisis has shown the necessity of efficient health systems and social services, alongside access to key infrastructure, especially digital tools and internet access in times of lockdowns and remote work. Without doubt, the pandemic has represented a setback for sustainable development. In its 2020 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Progress Report, UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned that "due to COVID-19, an unprecedented health, economic and social crisis is threatening lives and livelihoods, making the achievement of the Goals even more challenging" (United Nations, 2020). In fact, the Covid pandemic not only triggered a severe health crisis worldwide with a high death toll, but also caused economic and social hardship, impacting all three dimensions of sustainable development: economic, social and environmental. It has slowed down progress in different areas related to the SDGs: economic growth, social inclusion and access to basic services, poverty, food security, access to education, inequalities, environment, etc. This article will examine the consequences of Covid-19 on the three dimensions of sustainable development (economic, social and environmental) and give examples of measures that can be adopted to try to limit the negative impact of Covid on our societies, local and global economy and natural habitats, and to prevent the occurrence of future epidemics.

Geographical impact of Covid-19 on sustainable development

The impact of Covid on countries and regions of the world is quite asymmetric. The consequences are not felt to the same extent in European countries, which benefit from relatively strong social security systems and democratic governments, and African countries, for example, which generally have lower levels of human security. In fact, "low-income developing countries lack the fiscal space to finance emergency response and investment-led recovery plans aligned with the SDGs" (Sachs et al., 2021, p. vii). Whereas high-income countries have the means to respond to a pandemic, low-income developing countries often lack the financial means and infrastructure to face such a crisis. As pointed out in the same report, the major short-term implication of the difference in fiscal space of high-income and low-income countries is that rich countries are likely to recover from the pandemic more quickly than poor countries (Sachs et al., 2021, p. 2). However, it must be noted that rich countries with arguably the best health systems in the world suffered unspeakable death tolls. In contrast, paradoxically, developing countries with weaker healthcare infrastructure did not witness the onslaught feared. Yet, they may still be impacted more by the resulting economic depression than by the virus itself (Abidoye et al., 2021, p. 16).

Before the outbreak of the pandemic, some progress towards the achievement of the SDGs had been reported in many regions and countries, especially in East and South Asia. At the national level, Bangladesh, Cote d'Ivoire and Afghanistan had improved most on the SDG Index since 2015 (Sachs et al., 2021, p. 13). By contrast, even before COVID-19, many parts of the world were progressing too slowly in progress towards SDG2 (Zero Hunger), with a rise in the number of people suffering undernourishment, SDG12 (Responsible Consumption and Production), SDG13 (Climate Action), SDG14 (Life Below Water), and SDG15 (Life on Land) (Sachs et al., 2021, p. 19). The world average SDG Index score, which assesses progress towards SDG achievement at national and local level, declined in 2020 for the first time since the adoption of the SDGs in 2015, a decline driven to a large extent by increased poverty rates and unemployment following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic (Sachs et al., 2021, p. vii). The pandemic has further exacerbated the pre-existing trends and represents a setback for sustainable development efforts everywhere in the world, with some countries being more severely hit than others.


In 2020, Kristalina Georgieva, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, stated that the world was facing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The IMF estimates that the global economy shrunk by 4.4% in 2020. We may not know if this is accurate, but it is certain that both the "advanced" economies and the emerging economies have been badly hit. In this delicate context, the world risks becoming even more unequal and faces a major setback on reduction of poverty (Borrell Fontelles, 2021, p. 58). After several years of reduction, Covid-19 created an extreme increase in poverty in many parts of the world, including Sub-Saharan Africa, a region which, according to available data, has faced the first recession in 25 years. South Asia and India have also been badly affected, and among the G20 countries in Latin America, the most affected economically are Mexico, Argentina and Brazil. According to Josep Borrell Fontelles, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, "Europe is one of the most affected regions in the world, both in terms of health and economy. The decline in GDP is expected to be double that of the United States''.

The slowdown of economic activity and the global recession saw significant increases in unemployment in 2020, impacting SDG8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth) (Sachs et al., 2021, p. 20). According to the ILO, in 2021 there were 28 million more unemployed persons than in 2019. Unemployment is projected to remain above its pre-pandemic level until at least 2023 (ILO, 2022). Due to the restrictions, national lockdowns, travel bans and the introduction of a Covid pass in several countries, many small industries have been directly affected, in particular tourism, the gastronomy and hotel industry, trade, cultural and artistic events, and sports. The health and socioeconomic impacts were amplified for people living in slums or deprived areas, or in overcrowded settlements - SDG11 (Sachs et al., 2021, p. 20).

After an encouraging expansion of 5.5% in 2021 - driven by strong consumer spending and some uptake in investment, with trade in goods surpassing pre-pandemic levels - global output is projected to grow by only 4% in 2022 and 3.5% in 2023 (United Nations, 2022). According to the 2022 World Economic Situation and Prospects (WESP) report, produced by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), the slowing down of the economy, due to new waves of infections, rising inflation, debt and income inequality, will carry on into 2023.


This is not the first time the world is confronted with a pandemic (one need only think of the Ebola virus in the Central Africa region). Concerns about the risk of pandemics have been raised in the past by various institutions and governments (EEA, 2022), and scientists too have warned for years against the consequences of environmental degradation and habitat destruction on human health, underlining the interdependence of human health and environmental integrity. According to the European Environment Agency (EEA, 2022), "Covid-19 emerged and escalated through the complex interplay between drivers of change, such as ecosystem disturbance, urbanisation, international travel and climate change". A globalised world where international exchanges and large, urbanised, populated areas are commonplace can create the perfect ground for the outbreak of pandemics.

The implications of the recent pandemic on the environment are quite evident: although in the first half of 2020 we have witnessed some improvements in the environment, including air and noise pollution, thanks to measures introduced by governments to contain the spread of the coronavirus – among others, national lockdowns, travel restrictions and closing of borders, and reduction in industrial activity and production – with the resumption of social and economic activity, concentrations of airborne pollutants are increasing, and in some cases returning to pre-pandemic levels (EEA, 2022). The gains observed for the SDGs 12-15 were hence only temporary: "CO₂ emissions, which declined in major economies during the strict lockdowns, including in China and the United States, went quickly back to their pre-pandemic levels after restrictions were lifted. Deforestation is estimated to have increased by 12 percent from 2019 to 2020" (Sachs et al., 2021, p. 20). Also, the massive use of disposable medical equipment, including face masks and gloves, has exacerbated the problem of plastic production and plastic waste worldwide. To avoid the occurrence of future pandemics, we must act and tackle the global root causes of the problem: an unsustainable human production and consumption, the destruction of natural habitat and biodiversity, an uncontrolled urbanisation, illegal food markets and wildlife trade, and pollution of freshwater ecosystems, among others.


COVID-19 has had an unprecedented impact on societies, livelihoods of communities, and the wellbeing of families, redefining the overall everyday life of people all around the world (Abidoye et al., 2021, p. 4). However, Covid-19 has disproportionately affected the most vulnerable people in society, in contrast with the universal principle of "Leave no one behind". As the OHCHR points out, the Covid-19 pandemic is generating a wave of stigma, discrimination, racism and xenophobia against certain national and ethnic groups. States should act quickly to counter rhetoric that stokes fear, and ensure their responses to Covid-19 do not make certain populations more vulnerable to violence and discrimination. The poor and marginalized people, however, have struggled to access basic services such as healthcare and education; several people have lost their jobs due to economic instability or the impossibility to work remotely; older people have suffered more from health complications than younger people. The corona crisis has revealed the deep socio-economic inequalities in society, the unequal access to and distribution of basic goods and services, the uneven impact of crises and the many vulnerabilities faced by large sections of the population (Barlow et al., 2020, p. 25).

Also, the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to affect low and medium human development countries disproportionately with potentially devastating impacts on the three dimensions of the Human Development Index – health, education and standard of living, including through socioeconomic effects of the virus and containment policies for the months and years to come (Abidoye et al., 2021, p. 7). During national lockdowns, schools remained closed in most of the countries, leaving around a third of the student population without access to their education. UNICEF estimates that more than 168 million children have lost a full year of education because of school closures due to COVID-19 lockdowns (UNICEF, 2021). But even in developed countries, "the closure of schools and universities has highlighted the persistence of the digital divide, between those who can afford computers and fast internet access for everyone in the family and those who only have smartphones or no access at all. Between those who live in bigger houses with gardens and those living in small flats" (Borrell Fontelles, 2021, p. 82). Furthermore, the pandemic exacerbates gender inequality, as women and girls in certain countries are more exposed to domestic and gender violence. On 6 July 2021, Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, issued a statement regarding the impacts of Covid-19 on women's rights, underlining how their economic security and resilience against shocks has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Women's participation in the labor force especially continues to decline. The High Commissioner has estimated that young women between 15 and 29 years old are three times more likely to be out of the labor market and the classrooms than young men.

The pandemic has shown the necessity to accelerate the efforts towards universal health coverage and universal access to key infrastructure, especially digital infrastructure. "The COVID-19 crisis has made it very clear that countries equipped with effective social protection systems and universal health coverage are best equipped to respond to such crises. Digital technologies have played a critical role in sustaining social services, payments, schooling, and health care during the lockdowns, and in enabling working from home to be effective for many occupations" (Sachs et al., 2021, p. ix).


The pandemic has represented a setback for progress for sustainable development and impacted all its three dimensions: economic, social and environmental. On the economic side, restrictions and lockdowns resulted in less productivity and GDP drop, which led to high unemployment rates and worsened poverty. Initially, there were signs of environmental improvement, but these did not last long. The crisis has also shown the necessity of efficient health systems and social services, alongside access to key infrastructure, especially digital tools and internet access.

Some scholars suggest that the ways to deal with the crisis and its aftermath should not be centered exclusively on economic growth. Instead, the economy must be at the service of society, and not the other way around (Barlow et al., 2020, p. 26). Be it in terms of our relationships with nature, the metropolitan life, globalisation, or hypermobility, COVID-19 reveals the social and ecological unsustainability of modern society (Barlow et al., 2020, p. 27). As the EEA points out, "the imperative to emerge from economic recession [...] provide little hope that the post-corona planet will be more sustainable, unless there is an active and conscious change in social and economic practices" (EEA, 2022). Recovery plans and international commitments should therefore focus on the human and the society, be oriented towards climate neutrality and the achievement of the 2030 Agenda, fostering an inclusive green growth, social protection, universal health coverage and digitalisation.

Author: Sophie Bionaz

Supervised by Dr. Hassan Fartousi

Assistance by Marc Enzo Belligoi 


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