COVID-19 calls for resetting targets under SDGs: Health and education needs fresh strategies

The pandemic has laid bare some fault lines and vulnerabilities in the domains of education and health, and the lessons need to reflect in the SDGs as fresh strategies, writes Ram Krishna Sinha for South Asia Monitor

Ram Krishna Sinha Oct 16, 2020
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The UN-mandated Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) are the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. In building this future, it aims to leave no one behind. Yet, the COVID pandemic is creating situations, in some domains, which are posing challenges to sustainability in key areas critical to people, planet, and prosperity. If we leave aside economy, health and education are the two domains, forming two crucial dimensions of SDGs, severely hit by the pandemic. 

However, the invaluable lessons learnt by humankind now call for tweaks or reset in the framework of SDGs. The pandemic has laid bare some fault lines and vulnerabilities in the domains of education and health and the lessons need to reflect in the SDGs as fresh strategies.

Preparedness for health emergency

Goal 3: Good health and well-being recognizes that ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being at all ages is essential to sustainable development. However, the global health crisis is spreading human suffering, destabilizing the global economy, and upending the lives of billions of people around the globe.

The pandemic has shown the critical need for health emergency preparedness for a safe living environment for all. Protocols on awareness, alertness, preparedness, healthy and responsible lifestyles need to be built for safety of health. The immunity building knowledge and awareness, preventive health protocols and models should now be rooted deep and mainstreamed in health delivery systems on a permanent basis to deal with any such health calamity promptly and effectively. Learnings to manage nature and its resources differently and responsibly to avoid health hazards are yet some other precious takeaways that need mainstreaming in our lifestyles and developmental plans.

Early prevention

The experience and competence of the countries that dealt with MERS and SARS earlier came in handy for them to deal with COVID-19 better. Putting standard operating procedures and robust mechanisms quickly for contract tracing, testing, quarantine etc. has been easier for such countries. All this demonstrates the need to align medical disaster risk with health risks for early prevention and mitigation of any outbreak of pandemic.

Though the thirteen targets of Goal 3 promise to achieve good health and well-being, and one of the targets (3.3) undertakes to fight communicable diseases, yet the nature of the health disaster the world is experiencing now is so enormous, unique and unparalleled that it necessitates a separate focus on health security and safe living.

Education for all or is it?

Similarly, Goal 4 on education aspires to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education for all. It recognizes that education enables upward socioeconomic mobility and is a key to escaping poverty. Sure, significant progress has been made towards increasing access to education and school enrollment rates at all levels, particularly for girls. 

However, as the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the globe, a majority of countries announced temporary closure of schools, impacting over ninety percent of students worldwide.

Education for all, in collective confinement, when online schools; zoom classes, and digital textbooks are new normal, ideally, should boil down to digital education for all. Yet a large proportion of children in developing countries are deprived of access to connectivity or devices due to poverty or dismal infrastructure. Poor state of computers and internet access across countries, states, and regions are creating stark disparities in social consumption of education. 

Further, the sudden transition from offline to online has posed challenges for teachers not equipped with ICT skills. Online free contentment resources and its availability in vernacular language is another pressing need. 

Unless remedied with urgency, the digital split may disrupt learning, especially among the most vulnerable and marginalized, and jeopardize further our hard-won gains in the domain. Sure, out of the ten targets under Goal 4, there are targets that do lay emphasis on free and equal access to education to all, eliminating all discriminations and imparting skills. 

Yet the way the issue of digital inequity in education has come to the fore, a separate target under education to ensure digital education for all may need to be incorporated.

The pandemic is a historic transition like World War II and Global Financial Crisis in recent human history. The challenges it has posed are unprecedented and pervasive across the world. Yet the learnings and lessons are new, distinctive and were mostly outside institutional memory.  

So it makes sense that, as fresh strategies, the learnings get reflected in Goal 3 of Health as a separate target “health
security and safe living for all,” while Goal 4 of Education is reset by inserting a separate target “digital education for all.”

(The writer is a former bank executive who has authored the book X Factor @Workplace. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at rkrishnasinha@hotmail.com)