COVID-19, SDGs and Disaster Preparedness

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COVID-19, SDGs and Disaster Preparedness

The international community’s awareness of the growing occurrence of pandemics and comparable disasters emerges from instruments like the Agenda for Sustainable Development. However, the soft law nature of such tools leaves their implementation to the inconsistent ‘good faith’ of national actions.

With just the final Decade of Action left to deliver the ambitious goals set up in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the events characterising 2020 sound like a ‘last warning call’ firmly announcing a truth too often overlooked: we are far from achieving the threefold dimension of the 2030 Agenda, and we are already paying—in those same economic, social and environmental terms—for our lack of genuine commitment.

Indeed, if the progress achieved before the COVID-19 pandemic already called for further strong and targeted actions to arrive at least closer to the compelling commitments adopted by the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in 2015, it goes without saying that the current global health crisis has further hindered the advancement towards the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their 169 targets.

However, such circumstances constitute an important chance to reflect on how the SDGs are key to the realisation of societies that will be more just and resilient to crisis. By analysing some aspects of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic in light of the SDGs, it emerges how the Sustainable Development Agenda already addresses global responsibilities on the origins of the pandemic, the inadequacy of national responses to increasingly frequent global threats, and the dire consequences in terms of lives, economic and social costs.

Globalisation, universality, indivisibility and interconnectedness: ‘The pandemic butterfly effect’
For a better understanding of the reflections that will follow, it is essential not to consider the SDGs as part of a standalone ‘developmental agenda’ but to recognise how they are founded in, and interlinked with, international human rights law (IHRL). Such a view emerges from both implicit and explicit references to human rights treaties and rights embedded in the text of UNGA Resolution 70/1. In this sense, the latter might be intended as a way to renovate under the shape of soft law, and in a ‘developmental fashion’, legally binding obligations already assumed under IHRL; also, according to a thorough report by the Danish Institute for Human Rights, there is a 92% correspondence between the 169 SDGs’ targets and IHRL standards. Another correlation linking the Agenda and human rights which is worth highlighting is the universality, indivisibility and interconnectedness of each of its items (para. 71) and the analogue relation linking all human rights as the 1993 Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action (para. 5) specifies.

In this view, the impact of the wide-ranging measures adopted by states to ‘flatten the curve’ of contagion through limitations of the most basic civil liberties might be seen in connection with the economic and social costs of the response to this global health crisis. In such a way, the mutual relation linking the realisation of the so-called second generation of human rights with the full enjoyment and exercise of civil and political rights—and vice-versa—emerges at its highest level. Yet, ‘the pandemic butterfly effect’ encompassing SDGs and human rights had commenced well before the implementation of national lockdowns and their socio-economic effects.

In fact, the zoonotic origins of the novel coronavirus, and the social-environmental conditions that triggered the onset of the virus and its pervasive diffusion, clearly spell out the pressing need for stronger environmental issues including the protection and restoration of biodiversity and ecosystems. However, the promotion of actions related to a better ‘environmental hygiene’ is nothing new: it can be found in the right to health enshrined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), Art. 12(2)(b), and plays a pivotal role for the achievement of several SDGs (6; 7; 11; 13; 14; 15).

Such considerations illustrate the inadequacy of national and particular approaches no longer responding to ‘new global challenges’, be they environmental priorities or the containment of contagious diseases. The fast-changing reality surrounding us calls on states to share, with genuine cooperative efforts, the burden of the cross-border threats the humankind must collectively face. Thus, despite nationalist urges and renovated scepticism about international cooperation, the paramount importance of multilateral devices clearly stands out.

We know too that the lack of transparency in the management of the pandemic by less democratic, autocratic and authoritarian regimes, and the repression of free media and freedom of expression, may have enhanced the spread of COVID-19 globally. The arrest, indictment and conviction of Ms Zhan for ‘challenging the Chinese government’s narrative about the coronavirus pandemic’ is a case in point.

Such approaches certainly do not follow the lines traced by several targets underlying SDG 16, like the advancement of transparent institutions (16.6) or the public access to information and the protection of fundamental freedoms (16.10).

States’ duty to promptly report the outbreak of infectious diseases, to favour situational awareness and timely responses, stems from the right to health outlined in IHRL (Arts. 25 UDHR; 12 ICESCR), of which international cooperation is an integral pillar (CESCR GC No. 3 para. 14). Provisions in the 2005 WHO International Health Regulations (Arts. 6, 7) are further evidence of this. More broadly, we can say that international coordination and effective information-sharing mechanisms are indispensable ‘global public goods’ for the achievement of preparedness to pandemics and comparable disasters.

Similarly, the lack of prompt reactions by many states—for too long engaged with the ‘flatten the curve vs flatten the economy dilemma’—catalysed the dramatic economic and social setbacks currently faced by millions of people. Despite prior experiences that had shown the disruptive world-scale consequences of health threats as Spanish flu, SARS, HIV/AIDS or Ebola, the entire world proved to be unprepared. The COVID-19 pandemic has opened a Pandora’s box filled with inadequate investment in stress-resilient health and education systems, unstable living standards, unemployment, unprotected informal work, scarce social protection mechanisms, poverty and inequalities.

Forward-thinking agendas in theory and practice: The huge gap
Of course, these problems had already been flagged by the 2030 Agenda. Furthermore, Target 11.1(b) required by 2020 the adoption and implementation of policies aiming, amongst other things, to enhance resilience to disasters following the leads of the 2015-2030 Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. The Sendai Framework stresses how increasingly-frequent hazards ‘impede progress towards sustainable development’ (Annex II, para.4), making recommendations in two main directions: on the one hand, actions to reduce disaster risk; on the other, policies and investments to build stress-resilient communities in economic, social, health and educational terms.

What all of the instruments listed above demonstrate is that the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences cannot be described as an unforeseen event. Prior to the current pandemic, there was already appreciable awareness about the intersection between sustainable development, human rights and transborder threats linked to environmental matters, socio-economic and infrastructural resilience to crises.

Unfortunately, there was also a large gap between the keen and forward-thinking design of the recent development Agendas and their practical implementation. The origins of this might be found in the non-binding nature of such instruments and the voluntary and flexible essence of their follow-up and review processes. If the option for soft law instruments facilitates the adoption of wide-ranging political agendas and helps to reduce the length of negotiations, the other side of the coin shows how the lack of strong enforcement mechanisms renders the implementation of such pledges fully dependent on spontaneous states’ performances.

On this point, in 2020 just 47 member states submitted their 2030 Agenda voluntary national reviews. Moreover, analysis of the main messages presented shows that especially countries from regions severely affected by the pandemic—like Europe—did not contextualise their considerations with substantial references to COVID-19. And although it is true that this follow-up process was originally conceived as ‘robust, voluntary, effective, participatory, transparent and integrated’ and aiming to ‘help countries to maximize and track progress’ (para. 72), such poor results surely do not achieve the ‘exchange of best practices and mutual learning’ experience that this process was supposed to promote (para. 73).

That being so, the hope is that there might still be opportunities to capitalise on the atypical ‘diagnostic chance’ offered by the failures in prevention, management and response to COVID-19, thus boosting the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development during its last decade of action. If that were the case, we could benefit from both its positive impact on a broad set of human rights and the resilience of our societies.

Francesco Paolo Levantino

Written by Francesco Paolo Levantino

Francesco Paolo Levantino is a recent graduate of GC Europe. Before obtaining the European Master’s Degree in Human Rights and Democratisation (EMA), he studied law at the University of Palermo (BA, MA, cum laude). His main research interests concern criminal justice and the intersection of technology and human rights.

Cite as: Levantino, Francesco Paolo. "COVID-19, SDGs and Disaster Preparedness", GC Human Rights Preparedness, 11 February 2021,


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