COVID-19 is derailing progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): targeted action is urgently required to get young people back on track

Alt =  young Ethiopian women selling street food during COVID-19 pandemic
Douglas Scott, Kath Ford, Catherine Porter
22 September 2021


Our latest blog  which calls for urgent action to get the SDG's back on track is introduced  by Dr Catherine Porter, who we're looking forward to formally introducing as our new Director in October!

"With less than 10 years to meet the SDGs, COVID-19 recovery plans need to pay special attention to supporting young people, particularly girls and young women, and those from poor and rural households, if we are really to ensure that no one is left behind.  Our findings highlight a number of key areas of concern, related to persistent inequalities and the ongoing adverse economic and social impacts of the pandemic on young people. In particular, the combined pressures of interrupted education, increased domestic work and widespread stresses on household finances are likely to have a continuing disproportionate impact on vulnerable girls and young women.”  Catherine Porter

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals Report 2021, being discussed at the UN General Assembly this week, highlights the significant impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on meeting the SDGs: “The current crisis is threatening decades of development gains, further delaying the urgent transition to a greener, more inclusive economies, and throwing progress on the SDGs even further off track.”

Recent findings from the Young Lives COVID-19 phone survey in Ethiopia, India (Andhra Pradesh and Telangana), Peru, and Vietnam provide timely insights into how the economic and social impact of COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions could indeed reverse progress made over the last two decades. These findings are summarised in a recent publication, linking the information collected by Young Lives during the pandemic to the following SDGs: Zero Hunger (SDG 2), Quality Education (SDG 4), Gender Equality (SDG 5), Decent Work and Economic Growth (SDG 8), and Reduced Inequalities (SDG 10).


Zero Hunger (SDG 2): Higher food prices are increasing the risk of families going hungry


By the end of 2020, the risk of running out of food was a serious concern for households in at least three of our study countries: 17% of our respondents in Ethiopia reported food shortages on one or more occasions since the pandemic began, considerably greater than when the same households were asked in 2016 (5%); the risk of food shortages was likewise a concern for 15% of our respondents in India, and 14% of respondents in Peru.

While food shortages were not as widespread in Vietnam during 2020, the strict lockdowns imposed in response to the emergence of the highly contagious Delta variant in 2021, coupled with supply chain disruptions and rising global food prices, has left vulnerable families at risk of going hungry there as well, particularly in major centres such as Ho Chi Minh City. 

For many households, higher food prices have compounded the impact of decreasing incomes, alongside an increase in the cost of farming supplies (in Ethiopia and India) and health expenses (in Peru).  Rising food prices typically have a greater impact on people in low- and middle-income countries since they spend a larger share of their income on food than people in high-income countries.

In Ethiopia, we have seen concerning pockets of extreme risk of food shortages, including in Amhara region where 29% of households reported running out of food in 2020 (compared to only 5% in 2016).  The impact of the pandemic in regions such as Amhara has been further compounded by drought, locust problems and proximity to regional conflict in Tigray.


Quality Education (SDG 4): School closures and increased use of distance learning are widening educational inequalities


The consequences of school and university closures during national lockdowns and related restrictions have exposed entrenched educational inequalities. Although a significant number of 18 to 19-year-old students in our study intend to resume their studies, there is a growing risk that many poorer students, particularly those from rural backgrounds and without internet access, will be left behind and may never return to education.

In Peru, 18% of 18 to 19-year-old former students had not re-enrolled in education by the end of 2020, with students from poor households and rural communities most disadvantaged.

The unprecedented push towards on-line learning has also exposed a clear digital divide in terms of accessing lessons and learning materials, with no guarantee of the quality and consistency of related distance learning.

In India, around one in five 18 to 19-year-old students had experienced almost a whole year of lost learning by the end of 2020, even before the devastating second wave in 2021.

Worryingly, the evolving pandemic is taking its toll on the mental health of young people, at a time when access to often limited mental health services is likely to have been significantly disrupted. Our results show a marked decrease in subjective well-being for 18 to 19-year-olds, and that girls whose education has been interrupted may be particularly at risk of worsening mental health.


Gender Equality (SDG 5): Interrupted education and increased domestic work are having a disproportionate impact on vulnerable girls and young women


The pandemic has increased the already heavy domestic work burden faced by girls and young women across all four of our study countries, suggesting that households tend to resort to more discriminatory gender roles at times of stress.    

In Ethiopia, 70% of young women spent more time on household work during lockdown, compared to only 26% of young men. In India, 67% of young women spent more time taking care of children who were unable to go to school, compared to only 37% of young men. 

Previous Young Lives evidence from Ethiopia and India shows that engaging in increased domestic work is one of the most important factors for girls dropping out of education.  Even where this does not result in dropping out of school, it is likely to significantly reduce the time that girls have available to keep up with schoolwork.

While we do not yet have specific data on the impact of COVID-19 on rates of early marriage and parenthood across the Young Lives sample, our findings suggest an increase in the underlying economic and social risk factors of early marriage, including interrupted education and increasing economic hardship, sounding a loud alarm bell for initiatives aimed towards reducing early marriage and parenthood.

We also observed increasing levels of physical domestic violence for both young women and young men, requiring urgent action.  In India, 11% of our respondents had experienced increased physical domestic violence during the first lockdown.  Similar results in Peru show that those who had previously experienced domestic violence before the pandemic were significantly more likely to have experienced increased physical violence during the pandemic, with 24% reporting an increase during this period, compared to 8% over the whole sample.


Decent Work and Economic Growth (SDG 8): Increasing trends in self-employment among poor households suggests the quality of jobs may be deteriorating


Not surprisingly, our results showed a significant reduction in employment during initial lockdowns in 2020; among our 25–26-year-old respondents, 66% in India, 66% in Peru and 62% in Vietnam reported either job losses or a substantial reduction in income. These impacts were disproportionately felt by the urban poor, reflecting both the types of employment (often informal) and a tendency towards stricter conditions imposed in urban areas.

While there has been a partial recovery of jobs in our study countries following initial lockdowns, an increasing trend in self-employment and agricultural work may indicate that the quality of jobs is deteriorating as the pandemic unfolds, though the medium-term impacts remain to be seen.

In Ethiopia, self-employment among our respondents rose from 57% before the pandemic (which was already the highest rate among our four study countries) to 65% by the end of 2020, in India, from 39% to 48%, and in Peru, from 12% to 16%, with similar shifts towards agricultural work, signalling an increase in more informal, less reliable jobs.  

We have also seen gender differences in job recovery; in Peru, the gender employment gap increased sharply, rising from 16 percentage points before the pandemic to 25 percentage points by the end of 2020.

Reduced Inequalities (SDG 10): The economic and social impact of COVID-19 are entrenching and exacerbating inequalities

Underpinning each of the social and economic impacts of COVID-19 is an alarming increase in persistent inequalities across all four of our study countries, with significant loss of income and increased expenses disadvantaging the poorest households most, putting vulnerable families and their communities under huge economic strain.  While some level of social protection was available in each of our study countries and appeared to be well targeted, a large proportion of our respondents received little or no additional support during the pandemic.


COVID-19 recovery plans need to adopt a broad approach to support young people


The effective and timely roll-out of national vaccination programmes is obviously central to addressing the pandemic and reducing the impact of lockdowns and related restrictions.  Alongside this effort, COVID-19 recovery plans should address the specific needs of young people, particularly those from the poorest households and disadvantaged backgrounds, if we are to get back on track in meeting the SDGs.

A broad approach is required to ensure targeted social protection programmes are effectively aligned with efforts to get young people back into quality education and decent jobs. Existing social protection programmes need to be adapted to be more shock-responsive, including using rapid data collection to identify and differentiate vulnerable households. Active labour market policies should consider a combination of measures, including upgrading and adapting skills, providing incentives to individuals or firms, and job creation.

Adequate funding to address persistent inequalities in education, including higher education, is essential.  This should include ensuring quality distance learning reaches all students and supporting the most-affected students to catch up on learning, including targeted policies to address the digital divide.

And ensuring there are adequate measures in place to help address increasing levels of unpaid care and domestic work is critical to avoiding the rolling back of two decades of progress on gender equality, alongside the provision of vital support services to help prevent and address mental health issues and rising domestic violence.

While the immediate impacts of COVID-19 on the lives of young people are already evident in our findings, the longer-term impacts of not reaching the SDGs are likely to have profound generational effects. A substantial proportion of vulnerable young people never returning to the classroom to complete their studies may reverse opportunities for finding decent work and escaping poverty, further deepening entrenched inequalities.