COVID-19: Highest losses in labour income, education, says U.N. report

The regional group that India belongs to is likely to see the highest COVID-19-related losses in labour income and education within the Asia-Pacific, according to the United Nations’ latest assessment of progress on the Sustainable Development Goals and the impact of the pandemic. It’s also seeing a rise in inequality which is unique to the region, according to the report released on Tuesday.

India is the largest country in the South and South West Asia (SSWA) grouping, which also includes the SAARC nations, Iran and Turkey. The group is not on target to reach any of the SDGs, and is seeing actual regression on the goals related to reduced inequalities, peace, justice and strong institutions, sustainable cities, climate action and marine life. It has made significant progress on poverty, hunger and health goals, but still needs to accelerate action in these areas to meet 2030 targets. Among the areas listed for urgent course correction include migrant deaths and disappearances, human trafficking, unsentenced detainees, air quality and greenhouse gas emissions.

“Inequalities are rising in the SSWA. In fact, it is the only sub-region where we are seeing regression in this goal,” said Nagesh Kumar, director of the regional office of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) which produced the report. This is backed up by NITI Aayog’s own assessment of India’s SDG progress, which showed a growing inequality gap nationwide between its 2018 and 2019 Indices.

Mr. Kumar said the UNESCAP report portrayed the situation pre-COVID, as data collection lags mean that it will take several years for the pandemic’s full impact to be reflected in the official SDG assessment.

However, projections made by several U.N. agencies paint a dire picture of COVID’s consequences. In the Asia Pacific region, they expected a 16-42% increase in maternal mortality, with an additional five lakh deaths of children under five years, as an indirect result of the pandemic. Estimating that nearly 830 million informal workers were affected by the lockdowns in Asia Pacific, they predicted that 15 million more people faced unemployment.

The SSWA region fared worse, with workers losing 13.5% of their income in 2020, in comparison to 2019. Students in the region lost 127 days of education due to school shutdowns, in comparison to the 101 days average for Asia Pacific.

Air quality

Carbon dioxide emissions and air quality were among the few areas that saw significant improvement during the lockdown. “Satellite data show air pollution over northern India at a 20-year low, with New Delhi and nearby areas registering a significant 50% reduction of aerosol optical depth [correlating to fine particulate matter, PM2.5 and PM10] in April,” said the report. However, emissions shot up immediately after the economy was reopened.

“What began as a health crisis has quickly become a human and socio-economic crisis. The pandemic is imperiling progress towards the SDGs and also making their achievement all the more urgent and necessary,” said the report.

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