European Health Forum: recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic

European Health Forum: recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic
© iStock/ozgurdonmaz

A huge challenge lies ahead if Europe is to be successful in recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, say experts at the 2020 European Health Forum Gastein.

The 2020 European Health Forum Gastein (EHFG) opened its virtual doors this week for its 23rd edition, exploring the recovery of Europe’s health systems, societies, and economies, following the COVID-19 pandemic.

The theme, ‘Recovering from the pandemic: A wake-up call for a well-being society?’, explored models, concepts, and visions that could help Europe rethink priorities and build a coherent framework that facilitates a strong post-COVID come-back.

Creating a wellbeing economy

Speaking at the event, Colin Crouch, External Scientific Member, Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies, and Katherine Trebeck, Advocacy and Influencing Lead, Wellbeing Economy Alliance, discussed the challenge that now faces the globe in the wake of the pandemic, emphasising that there should not be a return to consumption and ‘business as usual’, but that human and ecological wellbeing need to be at the forefront of policymaking.

“The majority of people who have not been able to work at home have been the lower paid people – with certain exceptions among medical specialists. Out of this will come an increase in inequalities – both economic and health. Probably the cruellest consequence of this virus is that it has hit exactly those jobs that have grown in post-industrial, globalised economies,” Crouch said.

“This pandemic has destroyed many lives. But it has also destroyed millions of jobs. So, rather than pitting the economy against wellbeing I think we have to look for ways in which these can be combined. We need to look at examples of how the need to create jobs and to move on to a different kind of economy and society that can actually go together. This is exactly what has already been done with the green agenda, by saying that the green economy is also a growth economy.”

Trebeck observed that over the last few decades social policy debates have been stuck at a ‘patching stage’ by investing resources into helping people survive and cope with an economic system that is damaging to them.

“We’ve had an economic system prior to the COVID-19 crisis that was dependent on economic growth, and yet it has been proved just how unsafe that is in terms of pushing up against planetary boundaries and pushing mother nature beyond her capacity. It is an economic system that is unsafe in environmental terms but also an unevenly shared harvest. Collectively our world is terrible at sharing the bounty of economic growth. So much of the wealth that was created in the last few decades – even since the last global financial crisis, which should have been the time that reset our economic system – has gone to those at the very top, and we have seen living standards flatline for so many people across the world.

“The health community will be more aware than others that this is an economic system that is doing so much damage to communities. We have seen rising levels of suicide, gaps in life expectancy, rising levels of self-harm, overdosing, and reaching for coping mechanisms. Now we are in the midst of a pandemic – we stand at a crossroads, and the pressure to return to ‘business as usual’ is profound.

“The alternative is to build a wellbeing economy – one that has social justice and the wellbeing of the planet at its core. This requires a mindset shift at all levels. We know what a wellbeing economy looks like because we see it in microcosm across the world. What we need to do is realign the policy regime, so it is supportive rather than destructive.”

Investing in Europe’s health

The experts also highlighted that if Europe is to be successful in the fight against COVID-19 more solidarity is needed, along with clear political leadership, new partnership models to ensure access to medicines, and a more holistic, multi-sectoral approach to COVID-19.  

Maggie De Block, Minister of Social Affairs, Public Health, and Asylum and Migration, Belgium, highlighted the world’s fragility and the possible instalment of a coronavirus commissioner in Belgium.

“We have all been taking health for granted for many years, and now a virus has shown us how fragile our lives are, how fragile our economy is, how fragile our well-being is, how fragile our social life and our family life are. Our economy is important and all countries around the world were really surprised by the virus, but they have shown an extraordinary capacity to take measures against COVID-19.

“This is an opportunity to change things, the way we contact each other, the way we take care of our most vulnerable. We have to make things better for the future.”

Block added: “In Belgium, we have a very complicated political system, so in the new [Belgian] government a coronavirus commissioner will have to bridge the inter-federal level in Belgium. This commissioner will not be a political figure but a crisis manager, so that the entire country and its regions will fight the coronavirus pandemic at the same speed.”

To make Europe resilient for the future there must be investments in health and social care, and earlier this year Parliament adopted a resolution to look towards the creation of a Health Union in Europe.

Sandra Gallina, Deputy Director-General, European Commission, and Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety said: “I don’t think that creating a health union would have been possible one year ago, so Europe has learnt lessons. We may have single markets and capital union, but without a health union we are not going very far.

“We have pledged €1.8trn for recovery and resilience and we are working to implement this fund. We also need more capacity, as we can’t go back to business as usual – we will need emergency stocks – PPE, equipment, testing kits etc. We also have to have good preparedness for the crisis which we didn’t have this time – we need something much more structured and systemic.

“There are a lot of requests for well-trained healthcare workforces – there needs to be more balance across the regions, as it is too evident that there is a ‘brain drain’ from poorer areas to richer areas, so the geographical distribution of health workers is important. Diseases prevention is important – investing in health is really something that is a preliminary condition to any economic growth. For as long as we have not tamed the virus we will not be out of the threat of possible lockdown and second waves.”

The challenge of mental health

Many people across the globe will suffer from the trauma that COVID-19 has imposed on populations, from losing loved ones, to isolation and restrictions on personal freedoms. The experts highlighted that Europe needs to focus on alleviating this potential mental health crisis.

De Block said: “We have to give more mental health to all people – many families have been suffering, loosing family members and friends and also because of lockdown. People are left alone and isolated, suffering mentally. First, we should listen to the people and health workers who have been very stressed and working with danger to their own lives. We have to listen to them to take measures on all levels and learn the lessons about what has happened in our society – it wasn’t a big war, but it was a war against a virus and not bombing.”

Maja Fjaestad, State Secretary, Ministry of Health and Social Affairs, Sweden, said: “One conclusion is that investing in public health is investing in society. When we look at which groups have been affected the hardest it’s the group with the lowest public health, we need to invest in that now.

“There is a need for equity in healthcare, and a need for strong healthcare systems with equal access to life-long learning, and sustainable economic growth. I am a strong believer in solidarity and a tax finance welfare system, and also of a social insurance system with a possibility to have  sick leave as it is affecting society – when people cannot go on sick leave this increases inequality in society.”

Hans Kluge, Regional Director for Europe, World Health Organization, added: “Nothing is impossible. We have seen  Europe go through large transformations in society at different points in time during its history. This moment of necessity calls for courage and collaboration.”

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