The series of events that have followed the outbreak in Wuhan of the virus - what we now know as COVID-19 - have changed history, and the lives of many, forever.
The response by health professionals and the scientific community will always be remembered as an act of the purest generosity. It was also a demonstration of how important research and equal access to high-quality healthcare systems are for everyone’s safety as well as for the protection of society at large.
Although we had greater resources and tools to face this challenge than in the past, we still have many lessons to learn from these dramatic months.
“Healthcare services must be centred around the public good and detached from any private interest or profit intention”
First, we should finally accept reality by acknowledging that, in the face of supranational public health threats such as COVID-19, national responses are no longer enough. These challenges, in a deeply interconnected world, transcend national borders and highlight the evident importance of international cooperation and coordinated actions at global level.
This is also true at European level, where the maximum level of citizen protection can only be ensured by stronger European institutions and a deeper integration of our healthcare systems.
Here, the European Parliament’s S&D Group has been at the forefront of arguing for a genuine European Health Union, with the objective of maximising the protection of human and public health while ensuring that every person has access to affordable, equitable and high-quality healthcare services with no discrimination whatsoever.
This Health Union should become the European Union’s strategy for protecting human and public health, for fighting against cross border health threats, as well as an opportunity to end the substantial health discrimination that still exits across much of Europe.
Access to high-quality healthcare services, innovative and lifesaving treatments, screening and prevention schemes differs widely between Member States. Many of our citizens are suffering the consequences of that fact, with a lower likelihood of surviving certain diseases, for example, certain cancers or other non-communicable diseases.
This is a totally unacceptable situation, and we believe it is time for the European Union to step up and fill the gaps left by the inefficiencies of Member States by using all currently available powers and competences.
There should be legislative and regulatory measures setting up minimum standards for healthcare services to ensure that all people in the Union enjoy same rights.
The European Health Union should be the overarching strategy of the Union, to be developed through sectorial regulations, but also with the intention of boosting the efforts made through other political initiatives such as the Pharmaceutical Strategy, Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan, the Farm to Fork Strategy and, of course, the European Green Deal.
It is also time to place health once again at the centre of our political action. Before the pandemic, in most Member States, we have seen the ongoing dismantling of our public health services.
“We should finally accept reality by acknowledging that, in the face of supranational threats such as public health ones, national responses are no longer enough”
For decades, resources, infrastructure and personnel have been continuously undermined as part of the effort to cut public spending, while our doctors and nurses had to face growing difficulties in providing high-quality care and treatments to their patients.
For too long, public health has been seen as an expense, or a waste of money that could be better spent elsewhere. Instead, the experience of the last few months has shown us that health should be treated as the single most important issue, as the main investment for a secure and prosperous future for all.
We should reflect on the nature of public expenditure in the context of the European Semester. As established by the European Pillar of Social Rights, “Everyone has the right to timely access to affordable, preventive and curative health care of good quality”.
Therefore, public resources for health should not be considered as just simple spending, but instead as an investment on our future.
Protecting our citizens, promoting public health and ensuring access to high quality healthcare services for everyone must become the number one priority for any public policy, both at EU and Member State level.
The future of healthcare services in the EU depends on the choices we make today. If intended to protect everyone and with that to protect our societies and allow them to flourish, healthcare services must be centred around the public good and detached from any private interest or profit intention.
This is the mission that the EU should pursue in the months to come to build a fairer, more just and equal society for all.