European Health Union: Strengthening Europe's post-pandemic competencies

In implementing the European Health Union, we must learn from previous experience and see it through to completion for the long-term benefit of all Europe’s citizens, explains César Luena
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By César Luena

César Luena (ES, S&D) is a vice-chair of Parliament’s Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee

27 Jul 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the shortcomings of the health care sector in Europe. The shortages of medicines and medical devices, the creaking infrastructure, the lack of personnel, the inequalities in access to healthcare and limited pan-European competencies were revealed as main vulnerabilities.

Faced with the unimaginable, and just as happened with the 2008 financial crisis, the European Commission - following Parliament’s request - has taken advantage of the health crisis to strengthen the Union’s competencies.

“The European Health Union cannot, and must not, be solely linked to the pandemic and the preparation and response to serious cross border threats”

In November 2020, it launched a set of proposals designed to shape the European Health Union with the aim of transforming the EU’s capacity to prevent, and respond to, cross-border health crises. 

However, the European Health Union cannot, and must not, be solely linked to the pandemic and the preparation and response to serious cross border threats.

It must also address new long-term challenges such as our ageing population, digitalisation, rural depopulation, the One Health approach, the climate crisis and public health and the resilience of healthcare systems. The EU’s Banking Union was launched in 2012 during the financial and euro crises to considerable expectations.

Unfortunately, the reluctance of some EU Member States to complete the Banking Union bogged it down to the extent that is been on the back burner ever since. Stabilisation of the markets ultimately dampened the emergency and left this ambitious economic initiative incomplete and social demands unaddressed.

The EU must learn the lessons from this experience to design and shape a European Health Union that will outlast the current health crisis and world pandemic. We cannot afford to set out on another ground-breaking advance only for the process to go into reverse halfway through. And for this, we need resilient health systems.

To this end, the contributions of the national recovery plans to the corresponding health sector in each Member State are extremely important, although complementary investments with other financing programmes and national budget allocations are also needed.

Let's remember that the fifth pillar of the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF) focuses on health and economic, social and institutional resilience. The aim of the RRF is, among other things, to increase crisis preparedness and crisis response capacity.

In other words, it provides a strong anchor for health structural reforms and investments. Even if it does not require a quantitative target for social or health expenditure, there is the guarantee that the social and health pillar is an assessment criterion in order to get positive feedback from the Commission.

The resilience of the health sector will come if we properly address existing shortages, strengthen the availability of the health care workforce and improve their competence and skills to ensure quality care. Hence the need for a new Directive for Minimum Standards for Quality Healthcare and a clear emphasis in healthcare digital transition and in pharmaceutical research.

From a European point of view, if this pandemic has taught us any lesson, it is the need to build on, and strengthen, the European Health Union and the resilience of our healthcare systems to ensure that all European citizens have the best possible opportunities to develop and maintain their health.

“We cannot afford to set out on another ground-breaking advance only for the process to go into reverse halfway through. And for this, we need resilient health systems”

This goal will be only achieved through universal public health care systems that are excellent, cohesive, proactive, innovative and smart. They must care for and promote people’s health throughout their lifetimes and must consider and integrate gender perspective across all actions and policies.

From an international perspective, we still must overcome the global pandemic. If we must immunise 70 percent of the global population if we are to achieve herd immunity, then the production of, and access to, vaccines must increase exponentially and urgently.

The most pessimistic assessments predict that there will be insufficient vaccines for the entire global population until 2023 or 2024. Given that no one will be safe until everyone is safe, this means that COVID-19 will continue to pose a health risk for the world.

We can only succeed through international cooperation and multilateral organisations. A successful vaccine strategy would allow for the coordination of immediate international action to address the problems and bottlenecks that are hindering the production and distribution of vaccines.

This should ultimately be focused on sharing knowledge, ensuring full use of existing production capacity while removing trade obstacles and accelerating vaccine distribution.

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