Sustainable development is the development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the needs of future generations. It is, therefore, that development that meets the short-, medium-, and long-term goals of society. Another key dimension of sustainable development is its focus on the trinity of development - activities that are economically viability, socially equitable, and environmentally friendly.
COVID-19 is having tremendous paradoxical impacts on the trinity of sustainable development. First, it is taking human lives and threatening human existence. There have been over 59,949 deaths out of the 1,127,528 cases of COVID-19 recorded globally.
The economic viability of many business models and activities is low. Quarantining and lockdowns have forced many countries' industries to shut down, with many factories closing their doors. Many non-essential businesses especially have already collapsed and many more including some essential item producers are in ICU. Dabenham, a popular clothing outlet, is on the verge of bankruptcy. Potato farmers, in the Netherlands, are running out of storage for over a billion kilos of potatoes. COVID-19 appears to be a disincentive to the holy grail of capitalism - productivity.
Among the trinity of sustainable development, the environment seems to be the obvious and greatest gainer so far. As a result, quarantining and lockdowns, Nitrogen Oxides and Carbon dioxide emissions are crashing as the world winds down, but experts say the drop won’t last if governments don’t start moving to cleaner energy. The world is seeing the biggest drop in carbon dioxide emissions since world war 2. In China, carbon emissions were down an estimated 18 percent between early February and mid-March due to falls in coal consumption and industrial output, according to calculations first published by climate science and policy website CarbonBrief. That slowdown caused the world’s largest emitter to avoid some 250 million metric tons of carbon pollution—more than half the annual carbon emissions of the United Kingdom.
Meanwhile, in the European Union, declining power demands and depressed manufacturing could cause emissions to fall by nearly 400 million metric tons this year, a figure that represents about 9 percent of the EU’s cumulative 2020 emissions target, according to a preliminary forecast issued last week. And while data for the United States remains limited, experts expect that the coronavirus’s impacts will also ripple into the atmosphere as the economy continues to tailspin.
Global demand for fossil fuels like petrol, diesel and aviation fuel is plummeting. There has been an enormous reduction in flights, public transport, and road traffic, and April is expected to record the lowest monthly liquid fuel demand since data started in 1998. Oil prices have suffered their biggest fall since the day in 1991 when American forces launched airstrikes on Iraqi troops following their invasion of Kuwait. Brent crude futures, the global oil benchmark, were down 22%, the last trading at $35.45 per barrel. US oil is trading at $33.15 per barrel, a decline of nearly 20%.
Capitalism is obviously on suspension since consumption and demand for non-essentials is declining. The low and middle-income class, who are a major source of consumption and the sustenance of capitalism, are locked down. Faced with resource scarcity, they have now focused their demand on only essentials and many have been forced to contemplate the reuse of their limited resources, a key concept of sustainable development.
The focus on the production of essentials goods and services by many governments around the world has been remarkable. General Electric, an automobile manufacturing company, is being forced to manufacture the essential ventilators needed to fight COVID-19 instead of cars, which are in limited use during these lockdowns. The production of these non-essentials and their associated ‘unnecessary’ jobs continue to be one of the critiques of capitalism among economists. All of these have reduced the unnecessary use of nature’s resources.
The social equity dimension of sustainable development is also receiving needed attention. Across the globe, redistribution of resources from the rich to the poor is ongoing. Donations towards finding a vaccine for COVID-19 and supporting the poor during these lockdowns have increased. COVID-19 seems to have the potential of being a great leveller! All of the sudden, the rich and governments who have neglected the poor, the main source of their wealth, are beginning to have a second look at their social policies and interventions towards this fragile group of our society. Governments have become more effective and efficient in their delivery of services to their citizens.
The public interest is now being pursued to a greater extent. Public resources and infrastructure that are ready for use but yet to be commissioned because of petty and mediocre politics are now being put to use. In Ghana, the Bank Hospital, which was completed about a year ago but not commissioned for use is now opened to treat COVID-19 patients, although limited to the so-called VIPs in the country. Unjustifiable discrimination in this distressed time is shameful.
COVID-19 has obvious negative impacts on human existences and sustainable development, but its positive impacts are far-reaching than the negatives even in the short-term. COVID-19 and its effects appears to be a necessary evil that promises greater sustainable development if it lasts longer.
Perhaps, while medical experts attempt to find a cure for COVID-19, Economists could research how to maintain the conditions that have generated these positive outcomes. Understanding the paradox of COVID-19 and the sustainable development agenda reveals the high degree of interdependence among humans of all classes, businesses, resources availability, and usage.
Kenneth Appiah Donkor-Hyiaman, Ph.D
Department of Land Economy
Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST).
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely the views of the author and not necessarily the views of institutions he is affiliated to, including the KNUST.