by | February 6, 2020 | Opinion

2020 – a crucial year for action on health inequality

2020 is not only the starting point for the work of the new European Commission college, but also marks the completion of Europe 2020 strategy which aimed to promote smart, sustainable and inclusive growth within the EU. This is crucial moment for the European Commission to present its progress review and account for its commitment to reducing health disparities, but also to show its achievements and the future challenges for health equity in Europe. Undoubtedly, 2020 is the right time for new policies and actions to tackle health inequalities across Europe.

Health discrepancies, often perceived as a social issue linked to poverty and exclusion, are addressed mainly through social policies, an approach which does not provide an effective response to the problem. Focusing on the social determinants of health and improving access to healthcare, employment, education or housing through different policies such as the European Pillar of Social Rights or the European Semester, contributed to enhancing access to rights and services but could not combat health inequalities. Efforts to achieve health equity did not enjoy the expected positive results and the health gap continues to increase across Europe, affecting more and more socio-economic groups, including children and young people. Therefore, leaving no one behind as a result of the spectrum of interventions of EU policy seems to be realistic only if health equity perspectives are integrated into climate, economy, agriculture, environment and social policy areas.

The implementation of the European Green Deal – the European Commission’s ambitious plan to challenge climate change and transform the European Union into “a fair and prosperous society,” will be possible if only people enjoy better protection of their social rights that can contribute to strengthening health and well-being. Achieving positive results in both climate and social areas will not be possible if several population groups are disproportionally affected by environmental hazards, further worsening their health status. The Green Deal should provide opportunities for tackling the health impact from climate change on those already most affected by different environmental issues, leading to poor physical and mental health, and so contribute to reducing health inequalities across Europe. Addressing social, administrative and legal barriers in access to healthcare, prevention and social services, in parallel with environmental risks can positively impact the future of the European continent.

Will the European Commission’s Beating Cancer Plan contribute to reducing health inequalities given the greatest vulnerability of socially-disadvantaged groups to chronic non-communicable diseases and premature death? This new policy including prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and palliative care – four key pillars – may play a strategic role in reducing the vulnerability of certain socio-economic groups who do not enjoy equal access to medical treatment for many reasons, including financial costs. Children should also be given special attention when it comes to prevention and treatment of non-communicable diseases, including cancer, especially those who already face higher exposure to environmental factors increasing health risks for these children. Among the most vulnerable to health inequalities, they need stronger guarantees for their rights to healthcare, medical prevention and social services, especially at the earliest stage of their lives. The European Child Guarantee, which aims to improve child health and well-being – a key policy to be introduced within the European Pillar of Social Rights is another instrument that may impact health inequalities within this social group and combat risk factors causing the health gap among children.

The Green Deal, the Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan and the European Child Guarantee are all  windows of opportunity to tackle health inequalities in the coming year within the climate, social and economic areas. Health equity depends on the strong synergies between these key policy areas but also it should go in parallel with social fairness and sustainable economic growth, one of the objectives of the European Commission for the next programming period. The question is if health inequalities- an issue, which continues to be under-addressed, will finally receive the public attention they deserve.

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