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Having recently spent time on the frontline of the COVID-19 pandemic, Renew Europe deputy Chrysoula Zacharopoulou has firsthand experience of the crisis and its consequences.
Asked what made her decide to offer her help in the midst of the virus outbreak in Europe, she says that being a doctor is a vocation, not just a job. “It was normal for me to offer my help - I could not imagine staying at home and watching the news. I returned to the Bégin military hospital in Paris where I normally work as surgeon-gynaecologist and I was allocated to the sorting centre.
"Symptomatic patients arrived and had to be examined in order to decide whether to test them and keep them at the hospital. Being on the frontline together with colleagues was an inspiring example of teamwork and it gave us a strong will to fight back and a powerful sense of duty to fulfil our mission. Fear has no place."
While highlighting the importance of fighting the current health crisis and overcoming its economic and social ramifications, Zacharopoulou says that other pressing public health challenges must also be addressed, such as tackling the impact of an aging population combined with low birth rates, neurodegenerative diseases, the inclusion of those with physical and mental handicaps, mental health, and cancer, to name but a few. "Those challenges also deserve a European strategy, visibility and a place in our institutional framework."
She explains that these public health issues are debated and dealt with in Parliament’s Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee, which also addresses many crucial and complex issues such as the European Green deal, biodiversity and food safety.
“If we want to live in a better world, we need educated women and girls, who have control over their own bodies and are full citizens, equal to their male peers”
"While they are, of course, interconnected, I believe that public health topics are diluted with other issues. Future health challenges deserve a European strategy, visibility and a place in our institutional framework. I propose creating a dedicated sub-committee or special committee in the European Parliament and perhaps in the future, a proper committee. This could be the legacy of our ninth legislature. Let us have the political courage."
Zacharopoulou recently signed a letter with a group of her fellow deputies, pointing out the lack of coordinated European action in public health and calling for Parliament to place health and solidarity at the heart of its agenda with a dedicated body.
Asked what the benefits would be to allow such a body to play a coordinating role in the face of major public health challenges like Coronavirus, Zacharopoulou says, "I chose to enter into politics to stand for President Macron and his vision for a sovereign Europe. I am a transnational citizen: I was born in Greece, I lived in Italy for 15 years and was elected in France."
"This pandemic immediately appeared to me as a threat that has no borders, no political colour, and that requires common solutions. It is what Europe means to me. This is why I took this initiative to gather parliamentarians and healthcare professionals around this strong cross-party message.”
The Coronavirus outbreak has arguably exposed the fragility of society, with those already facing challenges pushed to the brink. As to whether the post-COVID-19 world will be more understanding and inclusive, or if the gulf will be bigger than ever, Zacharopoulou says, "Looking back at the last decade, our Western societies were ill long before the pandemic.”
“We live in democracies and we have a duty to choose the kind of society that we want to live in. We must continue to fight against racism and all kinds of discriminations affecting our citizens”
She continues, "The symptoms were visible: unequal concentration and redistribution of wealth, obsolescence due to the fast pace of technological changes, the rise of populist movements to power, the impoverishment of the middle classes. Coronavirus, an external factor, has exacerbated what was already visible, and this can no longer be ignored, even by those who did not want to see it."
"The virus confronted us with our own weaknesses. We have to cure the patient before it is too late. Those vulnerabilities have to be addressed by courageous political decisions, in order to create a truly inclusive society and tackle all types of inequalities."
"Building a sustainable economy that is respectful of all women and men and our environment has to be our objective and is our responsibility to future generations. Our fellow citizens do not just want to survive but to live with dignity and opportunities. In the end, the Corona crisis obliges us to do some introspection: rich and poor, Europeans and Africans, French and Greeks, we are all in this together."
Staying on the issue of creating a more inclusive society, Zacharopoulou points out that around one-fifth of the EU population has some form of disability. "Despite the progress that has been made, I believe that Europe still needs a change of mindset when it comes to persons with disabilities. Many of our fellow citizens with disabilities face difficulties with access to education, accessibility, and employment. They have to deal with discrimination as well as restrictions regarding their autonomy and their social integration."
"We do have the roadmap to ensure the inclusion of persons with disabilities: the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was ratified by the EU and all Member States, but persons with disabilities are still neglected. Especially during the Coronavirus crisis, they have experienced severe challenges such as accessing digital jobs and even rights violations such as disruptions in their personal assistance, care and support services."
Zacharopoulou suggests we need to recognise human diversity and enable everybody to bring their full potential to society on an equal basis with others. "That’s why as Vice- President of the Disability Intergroup of the European Parliament, together with my colleagues and in collaboration with the European Disability Movement, we want to ensure the rights of people with disabilities in Europe and all around the world. It is time to apply the legislation in accordance with their motto: ‘Nothing about us, without us.’"
As a Vice-Chair of Parliament’s Development Committee, Zacharopoulou says that as we do not know the true extent of the consequence of the Coronavirus crisis on African countries, Europe must continue to provide long-term support.
“Future health challenges deserve a European strategy, visibility and a place in our institutional framework. I propose creating a dedicated sub-committee or special committee in the European Parliament and perhaps in the future, a proper committee. This could be the legacy of our ninth legislature. Let us have the political courage”
"The EU has quickly put in place a response in support of the most vulnerable countries, notably in Africa. It launched an early global response to help partner countries fight the pandemic and its consequences on populations and economies. In addition, the European Commission also started an international pledging process to encourage universal access to vaccine and treatment and to make sure no one is left behind. €9.8bn has already been raised. The EU, its Member States and other international partners must further coordinate their action on the ground in order to give adequate support to our partners."
Zacharopoulou, who is also rapporteur on the EU-Africa Strategy, says that COVID-19 has shown the strong interconnection between us. "In the face of common challenges, multilateral action and international solidarity is the only way forward. Although Africa is increasingly able to diversify its partnerships, it appears from my contacts with our African partners that Europe remains their privileged partner. As we enter the uncertainty of the post-COVID-19 world, Africa is more than ever our best ally."
"The year 2020 must enable the re-founding of our relationship and anchor the concept of ‘equal partners.’ To do this, we must first and foremost change the way we see Africa. Our continents share mutual interests; we have a lot to build together. It is time that Europeans see Africa’s incredible energy and ambition. We must see beyond the discourses on migration and beyond the ‘donor-recipient’ concept."
She says that to this end, nothing will prove more effective than increased contact between Africans and Europeans. "We must strengthen our links, not only at the level of institutions, but also of individuals, whether they are students, scientists, artists or entrepreneurs, for example. The continent-to-continent approach must boost people-to-people contacts to further encourage mutual understanding and exchanges of experiences. This will be instrumental in achieving a genuine partnership of equals."
“We must first and foremost change the way we see Africa. Our continents share mutual interests, we have a lot to build together. It is time that Europeans see Africa’s incredible energy and ambition; we must see beyond the discourses on migration and beyond the ‘donor-recipient’ concept”
Asked about the recent killing of George Floyd in the United States, who died of asphyxia during his arrest by police in Minneapolis, Zacharopoulou says, "I am very moved and shocked by this murder and I think we all are." On the subsequent escalation of tensions after the killing sparked protests across the world, she says, “This is an outcry for more justice and tolerance in society in the US, with its specific history of inequalities, but also all around the world. I believe it is a stepping stone for awakening global consciousness on structural racism and the extreme violence stemming from it. Today, media and social networks play a crucial role in sharing those messages and fights and I believe that they are vehicles to global awareness.
"In light of the upcoming presidential elections in the United States, I hope this event will also trigger a citizen awakening at the polling booths. We live in democracies and we have a duty to choose the kind of society that we want to live in. We must continue to fight against racism and all kinds of discriminations affecting our citizens: skin colour, gender, religion, disability, ethnicity and sexual orientation. Those are founding European values and we must all commit together to defend them."
Turning to the issue of women, who have been disproportionately affected by the Coronavirus pandemic, Zacharopoulou says that defending women’s rights is not a matter of before or after COVID-19; it is a continuous fight. "I have always stood for women’s and girls’ rights, throughout my years as a gynaecologist and as an activist. For example, I co-founded an association in France to raise awareness and provide better care to patients affected by endometriosis. If we want to live in a better world, we need educated women and girls, who have control over their own bodies and are full citizens, equal to their male peers."
She points out that the Coronavirus crisis has exposed a major paradox. "On the one hand, women were crucial to the resilience of our societies, as they hold the vast majority of care jobs, such as nurses, caretakers and teachers. On the other hand, they were also the most vulnerable. In some countries, such as Poland and Hungary, political leaders pushed their anti-women’s rights agenda during lockdown while the population was unable to march in the streets. In addition, everywhere in Europe, everywhere in the world, we witnessed a sharp increase in domestic violence against women."
"The goal to reach gender equality is not a detail; gender mainstreaming in all our policies is a necessity. It must be a political priority and decision to stand for our European values. Upon her election, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen took major commitments - the European Parliament will make sure that she keeps her promises."
Asked if she is satisfied with the European response and mobilisation to deal with the pandemic and whether the EU will be better equipped to deal with any future health crises, she admits, “At the beginning, the silence of Europe towards Italy was terrifying for me. However, I observed, since the beginning of the crisis, all citizens have turned their eyes to Europe, asking for help. This is, in my understanding, a strong message of hope for the future of Europe, because citizens understood that solutions to this unprecedented global challenge could only be faced at European level.
"The current crisis has therefore taught us a lesson regarding the importance of cooperation and coordination and the value of solidarity. It is the right time for the birth of a political union. I believe that Europe has provided an efficient and collective response and determination to strengthen our public health policy: the creation of the RescUE mechanism, an ambitious response for European economic recovery, with a new health programme EU4Health with €9.37bn."
Pointing out the need for a more sovereign Europe to face global challenges in a multilateral system in crisis, she says, "A Europe of health is part of this project. We need to strengthen the coordination of European health agencies, relocate the production of essential medical goods and promote joint research in developing new treatments and/or vaccination, starting with the Coronavirus. In the coming years, we will have to face other public health challenges. Let’s have the courage."