The cost of Covid: 25 years of progress, halted

The sustainable development goals are the United Nations’ grand plans to solve global inequality. If these goals are met, then by 2030 there will be no poverty; no one will go hungry; and we will all have access to quality education and healthcare and employment, while breathing clean air in a world at peace with itself.

It is a beautiful dream — but it has never been further away. This week, the Gates Foundation released its annual Goalkeepers report, which tracks how much progress is being made towards these goals. 

“I knew it was going to be bad,” said Cheick Oumar Seydi, the foundation’s Africa director, in an interview with the Mail & Guardian. But he wasn’t expecting it to be this bad.

The headline findings include:

  • In nearly every indicator, progress towards the goals has halted or reversed this year;
  • Extreme poverty has increased by 7%. That’s an additional 37-million people living on less than $1.90 a day. This reverses a 20-year streak of positive progress; and 
  • Vaccine coverage — a good proxy for the effectiveness of health systems — is dropping to levels last seen in the 1990s. “In other words, we’ve been set back about 25 years in about 25 weeks,” the report says.

The primary reason for these dramatic reverses is, of course, the Covid-19 pandemic, which — as well as being a public-health emergency in its own right — has devastated primary healthcare systems, tanked the global economy, shut down schools all over the world and forced millions of people to go without food. “The ripple effects of Covid-19 have stopped 20 years of progress,” the report concludes.


There is a caveat: given the urgency of the situation, this year’s Goalkeepers report has been compiled with much greater haste than usual. This means that the numbers are not as solid as in previous editions, and rely more on estimates and projections. But Seydi says that if the real numbers are anywhere close to those in the report, “the ripple effects are just catastrophic”.

Seydi’s focus now is on how to mitigate these catastrophes. He has considerable resources at his disposal. Like it or not, the Gates Foundation has a major say on the direction of global development. Much of its $5-billion annual budget is spent in Africa, and its grants underpin health networks and disease eradication efforts across the continent. It is the only entity that is not a country to have voting rights at the World Health Organisation.

But this won’t be enough. To make a meaningful difference — especially as major powers such as the United States and the United Kingdom scale back their development efforts — Seydi believes that the Gates Foundation must use its influence to forge new partnerships and bring in the private sector, which “is far more powerful than some people actually know”.

Critics argue that the Gates Foundation itself is more powerful than people know — and dangerously so, giving it too much influence over global public-health policy, especially in Africa, where many countries are not powerful enough to dictate the terms of their engagement with the organisation.

Seydi rejects this criticism.

“At the Gates Foundation, we follow an Africa-led and Africa-owned agenda, meaning that, based on the lessons of development, you cannot implement something that makes a difference unless it is something that your stakeholders buy into,” he says. 

“So, when we do our things, we want to make sure it works for the people that we are set out to support, not just sending them something that may not work.

“I always ask myself: What is the alternative? … If you’re committed to making a difference, you make it.”

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Simon Allison
Simon Allison
Simon Allison is the Africa editor of the Mail & Guardian, and the founding editor-in-chief of The Continent. He is a 2021 Young Africa Leadership Initiative fellow.

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