Brussels (Brussels Morning) The COVID-19 pandemic is proving to be one of the steepest and most demanding learning curves in human history. There are still many lessons to be drawn from this continuing crisis, but one urgent conclusion is the undeniable necessity for solidarity in the field of health. ‘Nobody should be left behind’ is more than just a mantra; it is at the heart of our own survival.
For the European Union (EU), that must mean actions to promote healthy societies, both internally and externally. These must include measures to enact a true European Health Union (EHU) that strives for the health and wellbeing of all Europeans. And these in turn depend upon sharing health and wealth with other communities and nations all around the world.
As Anniek de Ruijter recently put it, a European Health Union is more than just a set of “firefighting” measures to prepare for and combat future pandemics, critical though these are and will be. It calls for a new social contract that puts the health of European citizens at its heart.
This is why I, as a doctor and as a politician, believe that the EHU initiative is crucial to the future of Europe and that health must be integrated within all our policies for the post-pandemic recovery and beyond. Europe’s citizens want common policies. They want to share the fruits of good health. They want to see levelling up in practice.
And they are right to do so. A true EHU must help fight inequalities as a whole, not just in health outcomes, but across the whole society. The pandemic has highlighted the role of poverty, as well as social economic status, in determining vulnerability to the SARS-2 virus and, critically, access to vaccines and treatments. So, a genuine EHU needs to address the socio-economic determinants of health.
Equally, environmental and commercial factors are core components. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought home the cross-border nature of threats to public health but, at the same time, how it has thrived in certain environments. That’s why a true EHU must promote sustainability in all areas of health, including medicines production and procurement. Here I’m not just talking about the virus but, for example about the environmentally-driven impact of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) that is an ongoing threat to our lives.
The EU has proven its international status by standing up for the World Health Organization and, above all, by spearheading effective measures to ensure that the Covax facility delivers millions of vaccine doses to the world’s poorest and, often, unhealthiest nations. Now it needs to ensure that such solidarity is written into its trade strategy so that it becomes a motor for promoting global health.
We do not need to wait for the end of the pandemic to start building an ambitious EHU. Certainly, ensuring effective vaccines are available across Europe and beyond is still a vital task in the months ahead, as is the sharing of knowhow and expertise on the need for boosters. But we also need to work closer together in dealing with treatments and aftercare for those diseases which, perhaps inevitably but regrettably, have been side-lined such as cancer – a topic close to my heart and professional interest as vice-chair of the special European Parliament committee on beating cancer.
Improving health for all leaving no one behind is the goal. But who should be responsible? The Member States, the EU, or both? This discussion has only just begun but must step up a pace. Some believe a true EHU will require a Treaty change to give the European Commission explicit competence for health policy. They believe their argument has been strengthened by initial setbacks in the EU’s collective response to the pandemic. Others insist that it would be better to use existing EU powers more efficiently, rather than enter upon the minefield of a Treaty change.
I tend to share the latter view. But there is already a forum that could address this and other issues raised by the goal of an EHU worthy of its name: the Conference on the Future of Europe, launched, fittingly, on May 9 (Europe Day). Its explicit goal is to bring the EU closer to its citizens and to enhance democracy by giving them a greater voice. And the people are raising their voices in favour of putting good health for all at the centre of EU policies.
If we truly want Europe to rise like a phoenix from this pandemic, “stronger, smarter and more equitable,” as the theme of this autumn’s European Health Forum Gastein so boldly states, health must occupy the centre stage in its recovery.