Theoretically, this should have been the best moment in time to fight a pandemic. Essential data was available in terms of months. The genome of the virus was sequenced in record time. We started testing. We went digital. Still, the means to respond to the acute phase resembled something from 100 years ago: lockdowns and social distancing. And problems continue to appear. All that data we can rapidly generate failed in many ways to bring benefit to the people and only pointed towards the elephants in the room: individualism, lack of vision, lack of means to use the data and, so on. A fragmented Europe.
COVID-19 transformed the way in which the European Union (EU) relates to health. As previous crises created new institutions for health in the EU, so is COVID-19 a catalyst for change. The pandemic has uncovered weaknesses and led to the call for a Stronger European Health Union.
Why? First and foremost, respecting human rights. European solidarity is a fundamental reason. The pandemic underlined the need not only to be protected, but to protect one another. European sovereignty in health-related areas is the other key reason. “The challenge is not to make the EU responsible for every problem but to foster collaboration and to do so in solidarity with the rest of the world“, as Ilona Kickbusch, Founding Director Global Health Program, Graduate Institute Geneva mentioned during the EHFG Closing Plenary. Returning to the old normal is no longer an option.
When, if not now? To ensure a prompt response, we must begin to dance with the elephants and the EHFG 2020 set the perfect stage for building a strategy towards achieving common goals for the future.
How? The Treaty of the EU considers public health an area of competence of Member States. However, in order to begin tackling the current challenges as soon as possible, it is important to strengthen the existing European institutionsand not spend more time changing the Treaty. The priority is ensuring good outcomes for people in Europe. This was a unanimous conclusion from the closing debate at EHFG 2020.
What are those good outcomes? The pandemic made us take a closer look at the definition of health. Not just the absence of disease but a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being. Healthcare systems are focused on controlling diseases when they happen. A reactive approach. Not equally promoting the need to maintain health. To ensure sustainability of the healthcare systems, there should be a shift from services centered on sick care to ones that promotes preventive health. A proactive approach. The European Health Union should be a call for action to promote mental and social wellbeing.
„We need a broader approach, focused on the psychosocial aspects of the pandemic, not just the biomedical ones”, was a strong message from Caroline Costongs, Director, EuroHealthNet.
A transition towards preventive health can be achieved by citizen empowerment and health literacy will be a key requirement. This can help us make sense of all the data that can be generated about a person (genomic, lifestyle, behavior).
It is also the time to empower the European voice in terms of global policies and in relation to WHO. The EU should make the best use of the available resources: strengthening existing programmes and connecting them. The EU4Health could be linked with other EU programs such as Horizon Europe, Digital Europe, Cancer Mission, and the EU Beating Cancer Plan. Pandemics are not common events, but the risk is higher in the world we live in today. A rare event can reach global dimensions quickly. Perhaps as a European Health Union we will fight the future crises with all the weapons available.