The tragedy of the pandemic cannot be in vain: lessons learned for sustainable development

Date 28.10.2021

Having suffered insurmountable losses and costs as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, it would be tragic to move forward without learning valuable lessons.

“Don’t waste these difficult days.” This provocative statement, made by Pope Francis not so long ago, must be taken seriously, especially by those with a vested interest in international development programmes. These programmes constantly clash with the contradictions of the current model of development that has proven to be unsustainable, leaving inequalities worldwide unresolved and leading to economic, social and political instability, as well as unprecedented environmental alarm.

The COVID-19 pandemic should not be thought of as a sudden disaster, but as the outcome of the progressive degradation of health security, that was not only triggered but fostered by our current model of development. In recent months, analysts have hoped for a ‘paradigm shift’, but the expression is beginning to sound simply rhetorical, and focus should instead be placed on key lessons regarding critical "points of no return".

First of all, the necessity of collaboration between the state, private and non-profit sectors at all vertices is evident. We already knew this in theory and it was written in all cooperation manuals, but the vaccine issue has demonstrated this decisively, in terms of production, distribution and monitoring. No sector is eager to reject the call for increased collaboration, if not for solidarity, then at the very least convenience.

Another example is the shift towards renewable energies. A full-scale energy transition away from fossil fuels is immediately necessary, but it is a fallacy to think that we can decide, from one moment to the next, to activate it with the ease of flicking a light switch. It is a slow transition, one through which all facets of society must work together. Companies are undergoing a sea-change in how they approach their stated values. Ecological stewardship is now part of many companies’ core business commitments. It is no longer just a matter of social responsibility; prizing environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria now determines all future investments and this offers great scope for collaboration.

Secondly, the way in which we work has changed radically. Realistically, everything is pushing us towards the digitalisation and dematerialisation of work. A massive leap in this direction was certainly taken during lockdowns across the globe. The possibility to continue our activities by moving into a virtual world has benefited many, but how many millions of workers are at risk of being left out from this revolution? Furthermore, work not only touches upon the question of economic independence, but also of social recognition.

A key concern is verifying the impact that new ways of working can have on the dignity of every citizen, while remaining vigilant about how to combine the right to work with the protection of health and the environment. In addition, issues facing the labour market must be reviewed by the state, private and non-profit sectors and articulated clearly.

The third lesson concerns health. In order to protect people both from a health and social perspective, all countries must drastically rethink how health systems are shaped. To acquire the status of an efficient and sustainable model, health and social services must be integrated with one other, thus bringing all citizens into the fold, starting with the most vulnerable ones.

The environmental issue dominates all of these themes. The fragility of our ecosystem, which affects us all on a visceral level, is linked to the relationship we have with ‘the house we live in’. The crises of the last 18 months are doomed to repeat themselves, with increasing severity each time, if immediate action is not taken to restore balance between humanity and the environment, translating into a balance between people and peoples.

No model of development can sacrifice this balance. Development and sustainability are no longer opposing values; in fact, the opposite is true. A green economy is the solution to our health crisis and the key to economic recovery.

No one can be left behind. Development is truly sustainable only if it is human development, revolving around the person. Once a person becomes aware and recognises their own value and dignity, they are able to give value to what surrounds them. A new awareness of the personal dignity is possible through education.

If we can capitalise on these three lessons, then the tragedy of COVID-19 will not have happened in vain.