Can the “new COVID-19 normal” help us achieve the SDGs by 2030?

Ifeoma Ibe is an Insights & Impact Fellow

2020 ushered in many anticipated technology trends like advanced data analytics, artificial intelligence (AI), internet of things (IoT), and the streaming revolution. However, weeks into the new year it became clear things would be overshadowed by the overwhelming onset of a pandemic. The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has presented critical challenges for the world, and on January 30, the World Health Organization declared it a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC). As of March, COVID-19 has caused 24 times more cases than the previous coronavirus-induced PHEIC—the 2002/2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak—and the COVID-19 numbers continue to rise daily.  This rise has also ushered in greater digital utilization around the world, whether that’s due to shifting face to face meetings to virtual web conferences and a flood of more email, to more screen time on social media to connect with friends and families or to order food, clothes and household supplies. 

Not so long ago, many people frowned upon the increased screen time that has come with the information age, and labeled it an epidemic. But now that the world finds itself amid a pandemic, it’s hard to imagine how we would survive without technology. The call for social distancing practices globally has led to a new level of digital connectedness. Digital technology is showing us like never before how it can help to improve our daily lives. But how can it be leveraged to better address other challenges we have before us, like the changing environment around achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Here are five examples focused on five of the 17 goals:   

SDG 1: No Poverty

While the virus infects people regardless of wealth, the poor will be most affected. It is estimated that nearly 24 million fewer people will escape poverty across the East Asia and Pacific region in 2020 than would have in the absence of the pandemic. Many developing countries are much less digital than their developed counterparts. Therefore, business activity will cease if people cannot go to their places of work. Fortunately, more than 5 billion people have mobile devices globally, and over half of these connections are smartphones. Leveraging gains that have been made on mobile banking can enable the poor access to banking without transaction costs and visiting physical banks. Mobile banking can also make direct cash transfer programs for aid organizations easier and more efficient. Mobile devices can enable small businesses, entrepreneurs, and farmers better market information and help the unemployed connect with job opportunities.  

SDG 3: Good Health and Well-Being 

With the incidence of new COVID-19 cases growing by the day, healthcare stakeholders are continuing to search for tools and medications. The digital health community has released a slew of new tools aiming to monitor the spread of the disease and facilitate better treatment. There is rise in digital epidemiology tools, chatbot helpers, electronic health record guidance tools, and rapid-response test kits. A Nature article explored the potential application of four inter-related digital technologies (IoT, big-data analytics, AI and blockchain) to amplify two traditional public-health strategies for tackling COVID-19 —monitoring, surveillance, detection and prevention of COVID-19; and mitigation of the impact to healthcare indirectly related to COVID-19. Healthcare systems should plan to use digital technology more than ever. For instance, tele-medicine infrastructure can be further developed to ensure that patients continue to receive standard clinical care while reducing physical crowding of patients into hospital premises.  

SDG 4: Quality Education

UNESCO has estimated that as of April 16th, the ongoing pandemic has affected more than 1.5 billion learners, 91.3% of total enrolled learners, and led to 191 country-wide school closures. Technology has intervened in the global disruption of educational systems and will continue to play a critical role in educating future scholars. The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in educational institutions across the world being compelled to mobilize and use the variety of technological tools to create content for remote learning for students in all sectors. Educators are experiencing new possibilities to do things differently and with greater flexibility, resulting in potential benefits in accessibility to education for students across the world. 

SDG 9: Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure 

There is no time like the present for nations to focus on developing and expanding their digital infrastructure. While countries have prioritized infrastructure innovation to safeguard their physical systems from natural disasters, pandemics have shown that processes are insufficient when it comes to ensuring connectivity and access during biological disasters. Digital infrastructure plays a vital role in predicting and modelling outbreaks. Governments across the globe are increasingly developing the digital infrastructure and engineering capacities to tackle the pandemic through community-driven contact-tracing technologies. To identify suspected transporters of the virus, private companies are being encouraged to design innovative tools that use facial recognition cameras. It is now the moment for countries to fast-track the construction of new digital infrastructure, in addition to the hastening of vital projects and major digital infrastructure construction. 

SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities 

Airlines are estimated to lose passenger revenues of up to $113 billion globally due to COVID-19. Similarly, the pandemic will disproportionally affect cities that have major regional ports, and those with long or weak supply chains for essential goods. New ways of gaining and processing data, utilizing open source mapping platforms, and generating powerful data visualizations are already empowering communities and helping planners improve zoning, street design and transit performance. These tools can be further used to prepare cities and communities to better serve residents amid the pandemic. Digital technology can also be used to establish systems for quick and efficient data sharing. A positive aspect of the response to the COVID-19 outbreak has been the extensive international cooperation of data sharing. Early this year, scientists did not know anything. But after China’s public release of the initial virus genome, there are now 18 genomes connected to the COVID-19 virus that are being shared and studied by scientists globally. This shows how critical it is to have systems in place that allow sharing of data not just across agencies and ministries but across international borders. 

Over the past decade, we have seen an exponential growth in digital tools that can help with development.  Will one of the outcomes to the COVID-19 crisis be that it helps us realize how digital technology can propel the achievement of the SDGs – including help to respond and recover from the COVID-19 outbreak – along the way to 2030?