Looking back at the last two years, it is remarkable that it has taken a pandemic to understand the true importance of (public) health. Equally striking is the notion that it has taken two years to realise that there is no going “back to normal”, that a whole new European and global normal is in order.
In building the new normalcy, we have no choice but to be wise and learn from the ongoing crisis. Whilst lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic are many, some learnings seem to stand out:
- Public health is the key to a functioning society and civil society plays a vital role in ensuring it;
- Health cannot be seen in opposition with economy and the intrinsic value of health and the high return of health investments cannot be overstated;
- Any global health threat must be dealt with in a true global and cooperative spirit, one that marries people, evidence and policy.
Underlying these learnings, it is health inequalities that the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown into stark relief. Both in the EU and globally, the pandemic has painfully exposed and worsened the pre-existing social and health disparities, impacting the lives of under-served communities.
In 2021, the EU took important steps to address the unequal distribution of vaccines within the Union, taking the opportunity to tackle long-standing social disparities in Europe. However, the devastating fight with the pandemic has pushed many other health services to the side, resulting in poor quality of healthcare, or in no care at all.
So, what could be done to strengthen and future-proof health systems, while making them equitable? In Europe, a lot has started happening by the creation of the European Health Union, which focuses on health emergency preparedness and response, and cross-border health threats. It is encouraging to see that the political attention is also being paid to the underlying factors, such as chronic conditions and ageing population, for instance through the recent launch of the “EU Roadmap on NCDs”.
But future-proof, equitable public health systems will take more than medicines, vaccines, and emergency preparedness. It is becoming clear that the current system of innovation, manufacturing and allocation does not result in health for all, and that market mechanisms cannot be the solution to global health threats. Only a European Health Union that connects the EU, its member states, and regions, that addresses health inequalities, that is based on inclusion and participation, and that establishes global leadership, will deliver on a bold vision of a people’s health union.
Speaking of people, it takes civil society to truly understand the most affected among us, to give them voice, and to ensure their resilience and recovery. Especially in times of crises. As national leaders have recently acknowledged: “Now more than ever, civil society groups should define what the recovery from the coronavirus should look like and who it should serve”.
Two years into this pandemic, there is clearly no building back better, only building forward smarter, and it requires an all discipline, all society approach.