During the current phase of history defined as the fourth industrial revolution, different assessments have been proffered about its impact on sustainable development. Concerns range from widening of gap and inequality within and among states to a more opportune environment for the developing countries. The adoption of 2030 Global Development Agenda with the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is meant to address some of the dire inequalities in a spirit of international solidarity.
The overarching ambition of these goals is to ensure that “no one is left behind” and make these interdependent goals inclusive especially in reaching out to “the furthest first”.
The socio-economic aspects of the targets have been interwoven under such rubrics as eradication of poverty, hunger, good health, access to information and digital technology, combating climate change and food insecurity.
The novel corona virus has, without doubt, exposed in varying degrees the vulnerabilities of states and international system’s ability to manage shocks of the scale of the current pandemic. The outbreak of the contagious disease has multiple dimensions at the national, regional and global levels catapulting health and digital technological transformations as meaningful aspects of sustainable security. The health challenges have impacted rich and poor, developed and developing countries alike. However, the absorbing cushion and capacities of countries that are already confronting socio-economic fragility is extremely narrow compounding the systemic and structural issues. The situation in weak societies where deprivation is endemic and employment and livelihood openings are severely constrained, the protective measures against the spread of the infectious disease becomes a colossal challenge. The curtailment of mobility and almost a halt in economic activity is a double whammy for the underprivileged and marginalized segments of society. Protection against the virus and making the two ends meet acquires a threatening dimension for these communities. The constricted fiscal space available to the governments aggravates the situation further.
The impact of COVID-19 is compelling states and societies to reorient their development plans in an effort to address imbalances in social sector allocations. Attention to the healthcare system and creation of corresponding infrastructure has perforce become a priority for the planners. The inadequacy of digitalization is additionally limiting new approaches to conducting businesses of daily lives. It is hampering online education, online businesses and most importantly telemedicine and tele health. Adaptation to new approaches is constrained because of lack of broadband facilities and national telecommunication coverage. In a way the social stratification in terms of access to technology are complicating the already limited opportunities. At the same time there is an increasing recognition that the core aspects of computer science, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and data computation have been instrumental in managing the COVID-19 health and medicinal problems. The effective use of combination of the technologies available in the era of the fourth industrial revolution has provided dividends for healthcare system and management. It is expected that these new tools will help in finding drugs and vaccine that would help in prevention and treatment of the virus.
A study jointly conducted by Centre for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, University of Minnesota and Harvard School of Public Health has dispelled “the idea that this is going to be done soon (as it) defies microbiology” (CNN report). The study has talked about three scenarios all pointing out that COVID-19 in one form or another will dog humanity for the next 18 months to two years. If the current situation is the new normal for the world population then what should be the long term response at the national, regional and global levels. These are times that demand international solidarity and united action against the pandemic. So what are the challenges and possible way out especially for Pakistan in overcoming the health hazards?
The Commission on Science and Technology for Sustainable Development in the South (COMSATS) has over the years smartly used its Internet Services (CIS) for providing telehealth services in remote and far flung areas of Pakistan. This is being done through the Basic Health Units (BHUs) where staff has been trained to manage the service linked to a team of doctors based in the CIS Secretariat in Islamabad. Necessary equipment is also providing the end users in BHUs. This has enabled in a modest way reaching out to the “furthest” communities in the country. Briefly challenges and suggestions for future planning are enumerated below:
- Balancing between safety measures and livelihoods
- Revamping the healthcare infrastructure
- Universal health cover that may include a combination of insurance cover for poorer communities and support for private welfare oriented initiatives as well government interventions (a kind of hybrid variant)
- Allocation of adequate resources to create smart healthcare infrastructure
- Bottom-up approach that would involve strategies developed through participation of localized structures
- Strengthening the role of BHUs in monitoring the local health conditions especially early warning about infectious diseases and disaster response. Integration of healthcare workers would provide the kind of outreach needed for early warning
- How to make ICT provide wide digital coverage to inaccessible and remote as well as rural areas.
- How can the marginalized communities get integrated in the response mechanisms
- Given the lockdown situations, OPDs operating at minimum level how can telehealth/telemedicine fill the vacuum in reaching out to people without discrimination
Suggested Measures for Future Planning:
- The historical neglect of the healthcare system can be rectified through a well thought-out strategy and targeted policies
- Allocation of more resources for health needs to be ensured. Spending should be smart to avoid wastage
- Covid 19 has shown how every individual in the humanity is interconnected. Infection contracted by one individual has implications for the entire world health. People oriented responses must be at the heart of public policies and strategies
- R&D has been catapulted as a priority field improving chances for more regional and international cooperation to fight infectious diseases
- Measures to upgrade ST&I as well as invigorated efforts are needed to achieve SDGs especially those related to health and wellbeing as well as alleviation of poverty. SDG 16 and 17 should form the basis of interventions at the local, regional and global levels. Removing inequalities within and among countries as the major objective as 16 and 17 have acquired more relevance and importance particularly in the context of post-COVID-19 environment
- Smart collaboration at the regional and international levels can be strengthened diverting attention from conflicts meeting the collective challenges of peace and security. UN Secretary General’s call for pause in global conflict is pertinent and worthy of global attention and response.
Fauzia Nasreen is from foreign service of Pakistan and remained posted asambassador of Pakistan in many countries. Presently, she is working as Advisor COMSATS Headquarters as SDGS