Impact of COVID-19
on the Sustainable Development Goals

December 2020 – New COVID cases have not plateaued, they are accelerating. And socio-economic effects, which mirror the virus with a lag of months and years, are accelerating as well.

Our new study conducted with the Pardee Center for International Futures at the University of Denver maps out three different ‘futures’ to assess potential COVID-19 recovery trajectories. This is the first installation of a global flagship initiative, assessing the impact of three COVID-19 recovery scenarios on the SDGs, capturing the multidimensional effects of the pandemic over the next decade. The study finds that COVID could drive the number of people living in extreme poverty to over 1 billion by 2030, with a quarter of a billion pushed into extreme poverty as a direct result of the pandemic.

But this is not the full story. With dedicated SDG interventions we can accelerate out of the crisis.

Under a ‘COVID Baseline’ scenario, the pandemic could raise the number of people living in extreme poverty by 44 million in 2030. Uncertainties are manifold and under a ‘High Damage’ scenario, the world could see a staggering 251 million people driven into extreme poverty by the pandemic, bringing the total number to 1 billion by 2030. Our research also shows that an ambitious but feasible set of integrated SDG investments has the potential to exceed the development trajectory the world was on before the pandemic, even when taking COVID-19 impacts into account.

SDG Investments

With 48 targeted investments in governance, social protection, green economy and digitalization under the ‘SDG Push’ scenario, we can reduce the number of people living in extreme poverty by 146 million in 2030 relative to the ‘COVID Baseline’ scenario – and narrow the gender gap, as 74 million women and girls are lifted out of poverty. And while the risk of falling into poverty is highest in countries that are affected by war and conflict, it is also here that the greatest gains can be made: a majority of the 146 million people escaping poverty live in these settings, including 40 million women and girls.

The benefits are echoed across additional human development indicators, including nutrition and education. In 2030, about 128 million adults and 16 million children are likely to escape malnutrition with the interventions, and the proportion of children graduating from upper secondary school rises from the estimated 66 percent to 70 percent. This can be compared with the High Damage scenario where an additional 37 million people are likely to be malnourished, including 4 million children under the age of five, and the global upper secondary school graduation rate plummets to 64 percent.

What underpins
this analysis?

The study applies the International Futures tools developed by the Fredrick S. Pardee Center at the University of Denver to understand the potential effects of three scenarios:

  • The ’COVID Baseline’ scenario represents significant pandemic-period increases in poverty and hunger and substantial longer-term negative consequences;

  • The ’High Damage’ scenario describes a future where the economic damage is worse and recovery is delayed;

  • The ‘SDG Push’ scenario outlines the impact of targeted policy interventions that can accelerate progress towards a more fair, resilient and green future.


These interventions are ambitious, even radical, and require behavioural changes on all levels of society. Governments must improve their effectiveness and efficiency. Citizens must change consumption patterns in food, energy and water. And the global collaboration on climate change must improve – including on carbon taxes and fossil fuel subsidies.  

This study shows that governments and other partners need to enhance access to basic services and improve health and social protection transfers, as well as increase connectivity to mobile and broadband services and strengthen investments in R&D. It will be critical to boost access to inclusive, effective and accountable governance. And for all of this to be sustainable, we need to rebalance the relationship between nature, climate and economy. This means eating less meat, using water and energy more efficiently, boosting investments in renewable energy and introducing carbon taxes.

Building forward towards the 2030 Agenda

The pandemic has exposed the consequences of deepening systemic inequality and prioritizing growth beyond planetary boundaries. But amid a devastating crisis there is space for bold decisions. In the past months, the world has seen policy making that seemed impossible just a few months ago.

For example, temporary basic income has been introduced in Lebanon and Brazil. Groundbreaking digital solutions in Colombia helped reach over 2 million people with a new social protection scheme in a few weeks. Energy pricing reforms appear imminent to increase fiscal space. And the burden on women to carry out unpaid domestic work during lockdown has sparked calls for investments in the care economy, similar to those in Uruguay.

As the technical lead of the UN’s socio-economic response to COVID-19, UNDP spearheads integrated approaches that can move us from optimizing status quo to reimagining development pathways, connecting unlikely dots, and ultimately creating the conditions for radically different futures. 

This is our lodestar as we support countries to reach the vision and ambition of the 2030 Agenda. We have an unprecedented opportunity to accelerate and transform global development through an unprecedented crisis. By redirecting our efforts along proven development pathways, we can enhance future development and ensure that our new trajectory is more resilient than the one we were on prior to the pandemic. 

This research was issued in December 2020 for updated findings click here.

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